A soup-centric ethnic restaurant seems like an odd fit for a suburban hotel. But at the Best Western on Cromwell Bridge Road in Towson, Pho Towson has made a well-deserved splash.
Pho — the popular Vietnamese soup with a DIY component — is scrumptious and healthy. The meal starts with a bowl of broth and noodles. Diners customize with herbs, citrus and protein.
At Pho Towson, most ingredients are fresh and the broths are complex. Coupled with service that is kind, if occasionally spotty, the restaurant is a treat for both locals and hotel guests.
Scene & Decor With generic tables and wildly patterned wall-to-wall carpeting, Pho Towson's look is more hotel than Vietnamese restaurant.
During our Thursday night visit, fewer than half the tables were filled, though the carry-out business seemed booming. Our party of two sat at a large round table designed for four, which was good for accommodating the many plates and bowls that accompany a meal of pho.
Drinks We started with a Chang beer ($5) and a Lychee Heaven ($7) cocktail. The Chang, a Thai lager, was light and refreshing — a good match for spicy Asian food.
The cocktail, a mix of lychee liqueur, citrus vodka, triple sec and cranberry juice, sounded more exotic than it tasted. The lychee was lost among the rest of the flavors; the bright red drink looked and tasted like boozy Kool-Aid. It wasn't unpleasant, but it wasn't sophisticated, either.
Appetizer The evening's biggest service glitch happened early on, when an order of spring rolls ($8 for five; $5 for three) failed to materialize. After we asked about them, the rolls arrived mid-entree.
Fresh, crunchy and bright, the rolls mixed lettuce, carrots, shredded pork and whole sweet shrimp, all wrapped tightly in sticky paper. Dipped in thick, sweet peanut sauce, they were a welcome snack, even mid-meal.
Entrees The soups that make up most of Pho Towson's menu start with a variety of broths; we tried one meat-based pho and a seafood-based rice noodle soup. Both broths were fragrant, complex and lovely.
The beef broth came with our pho tai gan ($9), a soup of rare beef and beef tendon that arrived in several dishes. A bowl of savory broth with noodles was stocked with white and green onions and pieces of slippery, gelatinous beef tendon (not an order for anyone who dislikes the texture of beef fat). On the side, plates with thin slices of beef (we ordered extra meat for $3), and Thai basil, bean sprouts and slices of lime provided extra ingredients.
Plain, the broth was full of meaty flavor; we enjoyed it even more after adding the herbs, meat, lime juice and a liberal dose of spicy Sriracha sauce.
The broth base for the hu tieu tom cua — a rice noodle soup with crab and shrimp — was light and fresh with the tiniest bite courtesy of the sliced scallions floating on top. Unlike the pho, this soup arrived completely composed.
In the center of the bowl, a nest of rice noodles anchored the soup, adding heft to the light broth. Large shrimp were sweet and springy, cooked just until done. Our only complaint was the crab. It was plentiful — huge hunks of crabmeat floated in the bowl — but not high quality. It lacked the delicate texture and flavor Marylanders expect from the crustacean.
Service Our waitress was pleasant and quiet, except when she apologized for the spring roll mix up (and rectified the situation immediately). With the restaurant customers and carry-out orders, she seemed busy, which may be why we had to track her down to order dessert.
Still, our meals were quick from the kitchen and for the most part, we didn't mind being left to our own devices — especially since she was ready with dessert and the check as soon as we caught her eye.
Dessert After-dinner options were limited; we settled for a plateful of chewy, fruity and cold mounds of mochi ($5), the ice cream-like Japanese treat made from rice.
Even with a few hiccups, our dinner at Pho Towson was a good one, full of fragrance and flavor. Good news for Best Western guests and anyone else who makes the trek to Towson.
Back story: Open since January 2012, Pho Towson serves locals and travelers from its perch in the Best Western on Cromwell Bridge Road in Towson. While the menu offers a variety of Asian entrees, soups — including the trendy Vietnamese soup pho — dominate the menu.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: Don't miss Pho Towson's namesake dish: pho. We tried a heady version of the Vietnamese soup, which paired a fragrant savory broth with thinly sliced steak and slippery beef tendon. After doctoring the broth with Thai basil, lime juice, bean sprouts and a squirt of spicy Sriracha, the dish was aromatic and full of flavor.
Where: Best Western, 1100 Cromwell Bridge Road, Towson
Contact: 410-832-2788; http://www.photowsonbar.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard
Bottom line: Flavorful food and pleasant, though sometimes distracted, service