The dish: Tai Chin ($6.95)
At the very least, this pho with round steak and brisket is as accessible to the first-timer as any Vietnamese recipe, aside from, maybe, a spring roll.
The pho curious can start with Tai Chin as an introduction to an exotic staple at a bargain price. For the pho lover who wouldn't dream of a bowl without tendon and tripe, An Loi offers, in all, a dozen pho selections.
Given the exceptionally neutral tones of cooked beef and rice noodles, the broth needs to carry the day. An Loi's Tai Chin does, with subtly and a deceptively simple flavor.
I didn't taste star anise, a familiar pho broth ingredient. I definitely picked up a note of cardamom, very strong at the start but fading quickly. Otherwise, singling out spices was tricky in this integrated stock. Per custom, cilantro, lime, chili pepper and bean sprouts are offered on the side; add them to really mix things up and vary the textures otherwise dominated by meat and rice noodles.
While Tai Chin is mild, adding heat is no problem: An Loi sets a pot of red-pepper sauce on the table with the rest of the condiments. It's a beautiful red oil, thick with pepper flakes and not so hot that adding a bit to a bite will cause a meltdown.
If anything needs the assistance of a hot sauce (Sriracha is also on hand) or additional flavoring, it's the beef. Thin sliced and tender, it's good — just not exciting. An Loi's generous here. There was enough beef floating in this pho to support a good-size sandwich.
In truth, this pho would be a perfectly satisfying meal without meats. The rice noodles pick up the richness of the broth in a way the meat cannot. Add goodies from the spice and sprout tray and you have a soup full of complexity that requires nothing else.
Now try to find An Loi. If you've lived in Columbia forever, it's possible you've still never seen the place. It's tucked well off Snowden River Parkway in a busy little strip mall bounded by tall berms bordering the roadway. An Loi could easily be overlooked for another Vietnamese restaurant in a nearby strip that's a lot more visible (Pho Dat Thanh).
Service — particularly given the cost of lunch — was exceptional. The primary server offered to suggest dishes, but didn't press the matter. No fewer than four staffers attended the table over the course of the meal.
Most dishes cost less than $9, and quite a few are $7 or under, including all the large pho offerings.
The dining room finds itself a lot closer to utilitarian than cozy, but by no stretch is it uncomfortable. It's a place for the serious Vietnamese cuisine enthusiast. An Loi feels like a neighborhood treasure — without a distinct neighborhood.
Where: 7104 Minstrel Way, Columbia
Lunch hours: Full menu available 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Lunch entrees: $5.75-$12.95