Pho Dat Thanh in Towson offers (foreground) Bun 3 Mon, triple… (KARL MERTON FERRON/Baltimore…)
Vietnamese pho is rapidly replacing chicken soup as the universal cure-all. Or maybe it's just me. In this Worst Winter Ever, where the colds all last three weeks and the threat of snow never ends, a large bowl of steaming broth filled with rice noodles and interesting cuts of beef - a soup that you individualize with garnishes served on the side like bean sprouts, fresh cilantro and basil leaves, hot peppers and wedges of lime, not to mention condiments such as sriracha sauce - well, it's the stuff dreams are made of.
When Pho Dat Thanh, a branch of a popular Columbia restaurant, opened in Towson last year next to the Recher Theatre, it was one of only a handful of Vietnamese restaurants in the immediate area.
It's an unassuming place, not trying to be much more than a noodle shop and college hangout, offering decent food at rock-bottom prices. It does have a liquor license, but I'm guessing most people just get a beer or one of the fruit smoothies, not the generic wine or tropical cocktails.
The night we were there, everyone else in the place had ordered pho or one of the many other main-course soups, and each one looked better than the last. I always tell myself I'll try the chicken but usually end up with beef in some form. All are priced under $10, as is almost everything on the menu. But if you just stick to the soups, you'll miss some very good appetizers and a variety of other dishes.
Four plump little quail halves are an unexpected delight, fried with a plate of "pepper salt" (just what it sounds like, salt with ground pepper mixed in) and lime wedges. These are delicious but greasy.
Delicate summer rolls filled with shrimp, bits of pork, rice noodles and vegetables wrapped in rice paper have a sweet peanut sauce on the side. Good, but you've probably had these before. If you're feeling a little more adventuresome, try the grape leaves filled with a dense ground-beef mixture. The rolls come with nuoc mam, the ubiquitous Vietnamese fish sauce, which adds sweet and fiery notes to them.
My favorite of all the appetizers was the shrimp salad, nothing like the mayonnaise-y concoction that comes to mind when you hear the name. Julienned cabbage, carrots and onions are tossed in a colorful mound, with steamed shrimp cut lengthwise and garnished with cilantro. The flavors are fresh and summery, crushed peanuts add salty texture and, of course, you can adjust the heat with more of that fish sauce.
We had a fine young waiter, one of those servers who make good suggestions without trying to sell you the most expensive dishes. (Not that there are most-expensive dishes here.) The only entree I wouldn't order again was the steamed rice crepe, which tasted about as exciting as a piece of plastic foam.
Take the lid off the little metal pot that appears on the table to reveal the fragrant pork pot, lean strips of fork-tender pork in a faintly sweet, peppery sauce. It comes with rice; if you want vegetables, you'll have to order them separately.
Enjoy the visual pleasure of the Triple Delight, of grilled shrimp, chicken slices and pork, each arranged prettily and separately on the plate so their flavors are distinct, with vermicelli noodles, lettuce, shredded carrots and coriander.
Still, in February, what you want to order here, along with a few appetizers, is the pho.
Various cuts of beef are offered, which float in the broth hidden by swirls of rice noodles. You can get your pho with slices of flank steak, brisket, Vietnamese meatballs and eye-of-round - or some or all in various combinations. I recommend the "Special Pho," with a mix of round steak, flank, brisket, tendon and tripe (but not much of each).
Desserts aren't a big feature of Vietnamese cuisine, but Pho Dat Thanh does usually have a "bean dessert." The restaurant had run out of it that night, though. The waiter suggested a fruit smoothie instead, but we passed.
Pho Dat Thanh's dining room, with booths on one side and tables on the other, is clean and comfortable enough. There's an open kitchen in back, but not a lot more can be said about it. The menu suggests that the restaurant is trying to be more than a noodle shop, and it is, but the decor does nothing to add to that impression.
The staff is friendly, and our waiter was as fluent in English as he was in Vietnamese, and could answer any question we threw at him. The wait for the food was just long enough to make us feel it was freshly prepared, but not so long we began to feel antsy.
Sometimes it seems like the only Asian restaurants that flourish in Towson are the numerous places that offer sushi. It's nice to have one that offers decent, cheap Vietnamese cuisine - something both students and folks who live in the neighborhood just needing a place to stop after work can appreciate.
Venue info: Pho Dat Thanh
Where: 510 York Road, Towson
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Entrees and main-course soups: $4.95-$13.95
Outstanding: Good: Fair or uneven: Poor:
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