Fragrant soup is comfort in a bowl



March 10, 2004|By Tom Waldron | Tom Waldron,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With a stash of fragrant pho in the back seat, it was a maddening drive home from Pho Nam.

The Vietnamese soup smelled so good I wanted to pull over on Baltimore National Pike and have a slurp or two. Pho, made of meat stock and spices, brimming with add-your-own meats, rice noodles, crunchy sprouts, onions, basil and hot pepper slices, is an entire meal in a bowl, one that should be declared the universal comfort food.

Pho Nam, in the 40 West Plaza in Catonsville, is a spare but welcoming place that specializes, of course, in pho. The menu is a primer on different ingredients that helps the uninitiated decide among, for example, well-done or rare beef, eye-of-round steak, tripe, meatballs and "soft tendon."

The various pho broths were packed separately from the other ingredients. The noodles fused into a glob on the drive home, but were revived when plunked in the still-warm liquid.

We ordered tai nam gan ($5.95), a mixture of eye-of-round steak and soft tendon. The broth had a lightly sweet cinnamon taste to it, a soothing switch from the usual stock ingredients. The meat itself was thinly sliced and mild in taste. The soft tendon was a bit chewy, but OK. The tangle of thin rice noodles and the mound of vegetables and herbs, as well as a dab of plum sauce, made the soup.

Another kind of pho -- bo vien ($5.95) -- was prepared with Vietnamese meatballs that had a mysterious, fatty texture. Ga uc -- or chicken pho ($5.95) -- featured thin slices of white meat and the usual cornucopia of veggies and such. It was the best of the three, prompting one household member to declare it "pho-nomenal."

We also ordered Vietnamese egg rolls ($2.75), crispy and satisfying, as well as fresh garden rolls ($2.75), which were plump little logs of veggies and shrimp wrapped in clear rice noodle packets and served with a thick plum sauce.

Pho Nam has recently added rice dishes to its menu. The lemon-grass chicken on steamed rice ($6.95) proved the little restaurant does justice to more than pho.

Dessert was fun: a gelatinous corn pudding topped with coconut milk ($1.90) and "three flavored sweet in coconut milk" ($1.90), a concoction that featured red beans and a syrupy green sauce. It looked and tasted like a new kind of sundae.

Pho Nam

Food: ***

Service: ***

Waiting area: ** 1/2

Parking: ***

Where: 6477 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville

Phone: 410-455-6000

Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

Prices: Vietnamese appetizers, noodle soups and entrees from $4.50 to $6.95; no credit cards

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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