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Eats and Drinks

What The Pho?

Pho Thanh Cong brings flavor to suburbs

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Venturing north from the city, out to the wilds of Baltimore County, it gets mighty white, mighty fast. Small ethnic grocers are tucked here and there, usually in the back ends of industrial parks, but otherwise you will be out of luck even seeking ingredients as unremarkable as plantains or lemongrass. The supermarkets simply don’t stock Latino or Asian comestibles (beyond safely de-ethnicized brands like Old El Paso and La Choy, anyway), presumably because there isn’t much demand for them.

So I was flabbergasted when a Vietnamese restaurant opened in Carney last month. Seriously happy too—I mean, the chance to grab some north-of-the-Beltway pho tai chin for a fast, cheap, and comforting cold-weather lunch is fantastic. But surprise was definitely my first emotion.

I couldn’t get to Pho Thanh Cong (Pho Thanh Cong, 9613-K Harford Road, [410] 665-2007) fast enough. It’s a pleasant, fairly utilitarian space in a strip shopping center, cheek-by-jowl with a Mars supermarket. I was pleased to note that the principal decorative element was several dozen cans of Café du Monde coffee arranged in ranks behind the counter—a sign of serious ca phe da, Vietnamese iced coffee, on the premises.

The menu is brief. There are half a dozen variations on pho, the iconic soup of thin rice vermicelli noodles in complexly spiced, star anise-scented broth. (Pho can be ordered meat-free, but since the soup’s foundation is either chicken or beef broth, it’s hardly a vegetarian option). A small bowl, actually quite large, of any variety is $6.99; a large bowl (birdbath size) runs $8.50. One version, pho ga, is very plain, poached white chicken meat in chicken broth, barely enlivened by scallions and caramelized onions. There are six more pho choices, all beef, differentiated by combinations of cut— round, flank, tendon, tripe, and meatballs. Can’t decide? Order the kitchen sink, pho dac biet, which throws everything in and is the only way to get tripe in your bowl (a good thing, the tripe—it adds texture and heft to an otherwise soft food experience). Or try the most basic version, pho tai, with slices of medium-rare eye round. All variations come with a heaping platter of garnishes, to be added at the eater’s pleasure: bean sprouts, Thai basil, lime wedges, and thinly sliced jalapeño.

Pho is a comforting but ultimately lightweight repast, which makes sense, considering Vietnam’s largely subtropical climate. When it’s cold here, though, and I’m really hungry, I prefer bun bo hue ($8.50). It’s also a soup, but with substantially heftier noodles and a bit of heat, which can be amped up by using more of the spicy chili-oil condiment from the tabletop server. Distinct from the perfume of pho’s complex spices, bun bo hue’s earthy broth is driven by lemongrass and fish sauce. Authentic versions come topped with sliced banana flowers, but finely shredded purple cabbage makes a surprisingly convincing substitute here in wintertime Baltimore.

Pho Thanh Cong offers a handful of other Vietnamese dishes, including bun ($8.50)—rice vermicelli noodles topped with grilled meat and/or vegetables, loaded with salty peanuts and a variety of garnishes like mint or basil leaves, julienne carrots, and bean sprouts. The house “special broken rice dish” ($10.99) throws pretty much all of this on one platter, including a very tasty and intriguing eggy pancake brimming with ground pork, shrimp, and dried mushrooms. This was the best part of the plate. The two different pork presentations—grilled and shredded—were dry and flavorless, and became an excuse to consume large quantities of the outstanding nuoc mam chan, a Vietnamese condiment of fish sauce, lime, sugar, and finely diced hot red chilies, freshly made in house and served as a dipping sauce. We much preferred it to the peanut sauce served alongside the outstanding goi cuon summer rolls (two for $3.50, five for $7)—fresh, fat rolls of tender rice pancakes wrapped around grilled pork and shrimp, rice vermicelli, and basil leaves, with a long tail of green scallion running through.

Drinks are as authentic and interesting as the eats at Pho Thanh Cong. Beyond the rocket-powered Vietnamese coffee, served hot or iced ($3.50), I was delighted to see fresh, young coconut juice ($3.50)—fresh as in from an actual coconut and not from a can or carton—where tender curls of young coconut meat lurk at the bottom of a tall glass of the milky-sweet nectar. Vietnamese lemonade, da chanh ($2.00), is a fascinating take on the usual, with a touch of salt amid the citrus and sugar that really brings out all the flavors in a new way. Several of the drinks, like the sweet longan smoothie ($2.50), serve as desserts, and there is also flan ($2).

The restaurant’s owners and staff are all young, enthusiastic, and friendly. Prices are reasonable, portions large. Service is prompt, the food arrives with near-magical swiftness, and there is a daily $6.95 lunch menu. I might just live here from now on.

Pho Thanh Cong’s is open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.

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