Tuesday, June 29, 2010

An Loi

Are you in need of a quick dinner spot before a play? My friends and I were in just such a need on Sunday night before seeing the closing night of a play at Howard Community College (Edward Albee's The Goat - Wow, very energetic, powerful and absurd play). But where to eat that wasn't a chain? I am okay with chains, but I prefer to avoid them if something "non-chain-y" is around. The chains are often a little pricier than some of the non-chains anyway. Eric, however, was insistent: no chains. Fine with me. I was ready to mention the always good Mango Grove, but Alan had heard from a friend about a Vietnamese place off Broken Land Parkway.

An Loi is not just a phở place, like many Vietnamese restaurants I have frequented; it serves so much more. An Loi has other types of soups, hearty noodle dishes, various Vietnamese appetizers, and even a small wine and soju list. Especially impressive to me was their fish sauce: it's homemade. Yes, it says right on their menu that they make their own nước mắm, which I have never heard of any restaurant doing before. Maybe others do and I just didn't know about it, but An Loi is the first that I know of. It is a little richer, a little more "umami-ish" - than any fish sauce I have tasted before.

Our appetizers were the typical Vietnamese spring rolls ($3.50) - the soft rolls wrapped around noodles and vegetables. All I can say about them was that they were filling. I've found these spring rolls to be more or less "okay" no matter where I go: they are a thing to order, but they don't wow you like other menu items. The peanut dipping sauce was worth noting, especially for the chopped peanuts on top. More interesting was the papaya and shrimp salad that came next, which was tangy and vinegary. In fact, this tanginess was a bit stronger to me than the papaya flavor, but the salad was still tasty.

I could have ordered the Bun Thit Heo Nuong (the highly recommended "B2" for only $7.95), which Alan enjoyed - we thought the pork in this vermicelli dish, with shredded lettuce, mint, basil, shallots, peanuts, bean sprouts and such, reminded us very strongly of bulgogi. (I can't recall what Eric got, but I liked this even more.) Instead I decided to go with the tried and true phở (large bowl for just under $7). I think mine was the phở an loi. It was filled with the typical thin-sliced beef, tripe - I hate tripe but this was more thinly sliced and enjoyable than I've ever seen in phở) and tightly-packed meatballs, mixed in with dense strands of think rice vermicelli, plus bean sprouts and the occasional jalapeño slice (again, sliced extremely thin) that I added myself. I have to remark on the meat, which was, again, more thinly sliced than I've ever seen in phở, and was also more tender than in any phở I have had in a long time. Of course, I could not finish it, even though this large bowl was smaller than most large bowls I've had. This is simply because it still was packed with about as much meat and noodles as a typical phở that I have had before.

I do also have to comment on one unusual beverage that I simply had to try out of curiosity. Among the various beverages was a salty lemon soda (about $3). This sounds awful but you would be surprised at how fascinating this salty-sweet carbonated beverage is! It's almost like a slightly salty 7-Up. I think I caused a little extra interest from some of the wait staff, curious at the European-American trying this drink that to him would clearly be something new. I don't see myself drinking a six-pack of this stuff, but I would encourage you to try this if you head to An Loi.

One final comment I must make: we got our food fast. Very fast. I don't mean McDonald's fast, but it was certainly fast for a sit-down restaurant. This was despite the fact that we were one of several tables of patrons there that night. I don't know if this is typical or not, but if you have a play or something to get to, like at Howard Community, chances are you will make it in time.

An Loi on Urbanspoon