Pho Dat Thanh goes beyond Vietnamese dishes

In many cultures, especially Asian, a humble facade hides a fancy home inside. In this case, though, the inside of Pho Dat Thanh (pronounced "Foe Daht Than") in Snowden Marketplace, Columbia, isn't all that fancy, either. A single room, with a small bar to one side near the entrance, features silvery green walls with a tangerine-hued chair rail in the middle and rather non-descript prints above.

The tables are bare-topped, with a stainless basket of condiments providing a bit of color. Utensils are a fork and a pair of chop sticks wrapped in a paper napkin.

What's fancy in this 10-year-old storefront eatery is the menu. Page after page of Vietnamese dishes make for delicious reading and create a decision-making quandary because everything looks so good.

While there's a common conception that Vietnamese food focuses on concoctions that feature meats, veggies and noodles in hot broth, the Pho Dat Thanh menu quickly dispels that notion. There are plenty of rice dishes, too, and offerings that are reminiscent of Thai and Chinese cookery as well. And actually, Vietnamese cuisine offers a variety of culinary approaches, with hearty fare from the North, more "sophisticated" goodies from the central part of the country and spicier dishes from the south.

This menu seems to feature all of them, with a few popular preparations (e.g. Pad Thai) from other countries.

Certainly the noodle soup dishes were being well received on the chilly night four of us visited recently. Plenty of customers – most probably regulars -- were happily tucking into big bowls of meats and poultry, noodles and broth with great gusto, using chopsticks for the chewables and Chinese crockery "spoons" for the broth.

Starting off

We wanted to sample as much variety as we could that night, so we took a lot longer to decide than most of our eatery mates; indeed, virtually all the tables turned at least once while we were there. During our ruminations, three of us sipped spirited beverages, including "Export 33," formerly Trente-Trois, a French-influenced beer that harks back to when that country occupied Vietnam. And our teetotaler enjoyed an avocado smoothie ($3.95 with tapioca). The tall glass of thick, pale green goodness had big black pasty tapioca beads on the bottom, while the smoothie itself tasted very lightly of avocado. Not sweet, but very refreshing, and a good accompaniment for any spicy food you might decide to order.

A quartet of appetizers started us on our exotic journey. Summer rolls ($3.75 for two) were a version of spring rolls, only steamed, not fried. The chewy rolls, wrapped in translucent rice paper, were replete with vegetables, bits of shrimp and pork, plenty of cilantro and crunchy (albeit cooked) vermicelli noodles. A ubiquitous peanut sauce (which we love) was served on the side.

Deep fried fish cake ($5.75) featured at least a dozen spongy-chewy morsels of (mild) ground fish that had been lightly breaded and fried. What's the word? Ah, yes, interesting. These were nicely presented (as were virtually all of our selections) with a generous garnish of iceberg lettuce, thin tomato slices, shredded carrots and cilantro sprigs.

Grilled beef in grape leaves ($5.75) boasted three large, soft and tender hand-rolled grape leaf wrappers plumped with marinated, grilled ground beef and featuring crushed peanuts and fish sauce (called nam pla in Thailand). The textures were appealing, the flavors beefy and "grapey," although a bit on the salty side (the fish sauce).

Roast quail ($7.95) is also from that 12-item appetizer section. Two whole quail (you know they're teeny tiny) had been halved, brushed with a smooth, quasi-sweet sauce and roasted to chewy goodness. A fun finger food. And to go with it, a salt/pepper mix for sprinkling and fresh lime wedges for squirting.

House specialties

At Pho Dat Thanh, the kitchen can provide more than 35 different soups, most of which could easily serve as your main dish, or certainly a hearty first course. But there's so much more to the menu that we decided to dispense with the broth-y things and order from elsewhere on the bill of fare. The rice crepes tempted, a trio of them. And there were menu sections featuring chicken, pork, beef and shrimp. Plus six lo mein and fried rice offerings. As well as a section titled "Chowfoon or Chowmein," which also proffered a variety of stir-fried noodles in combination with various protein sources.

One of our guests opted for a dish from this latter section —something familiar —Pad Thai ($11.25); and as good a version as you'd find in any Thai restaurant. Plenty of shrimp and eggs and veggies stirred up with rice noodles and the house "sweet" sauce, then topped with ample crushed peanuts. With just that little hint of heat in the background. Comfort, Asian style.

Two of us selected main courses from the "House's Special" section. Shredded crispy beef ($12.95) was a very generous portion of thinly shredded beef that had been battered and properly fried so that the crispy outside protected the moist and tender-chewy inside meat. Set over lettuce, with steamed rice on the side. And slightly sweet, yet spicy sauce, too. Our diner's taste buds would have liked a bit more "heat" in this dish.

As would the taster who selected "crispy, spicy seafood" ($13.95), a generous assortment of small shrimp, scallops and squid, also battered, then pan fried to a delightfully crisp-outside, moist-inside finish —almost like a tempura, but with a slightly grainier coating.

All's well, so far. Our fourth taster ordered from the "Vermicelli" section of the menu —a Triple Delight Grilled ($9.25), described as "shrimp, chicken and pork on vermicelli." And so it was. The elements (and they were generous) were all there, but the result was not as our guest has envisioned. For one thing, the (paper-thin) chicken had been imbued with a smoky flavor (not a favorite with her), and the noodles, although tender and done just right, needed something (like chicken broth?) to moisten them and bring all the elements into accord. This, of course, isn't the kitchen's fault, since it provided the dish as described. But, still…

On the other hand, a selection from the "vegetarian" section —"string bean delight" ($8.75) – featured the freshest, crispiest stir-fried green beans in spicy garlic sauce that we've tried anywhere.

A return trip is in order – and so saith our group unanimously.

Pho Dat Thanh (410-381-3839) is at 9400 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia. Tucked between Nichi Bei Kai and Azul 17, this eatery bills itself as a "Vietnamese Restaurant" (with) "fine noodles and grill." It features a plethora of Vietnamese favorites in addition to dishes demonstrating elements of Chinese (lots of them) and Thai cuisines. Friendly, efficient service. Reasonable prices. A good "neighborhood" restaurant, no matter what neighborhood you live in.

Owner Steve Chun has 20 or so full- and part-time employees, including head cook Neith, at his 100-seat Columbia establishment. He says Pho Dat Thanh means "dream come true." With the success of the Snowden Marketplace restaurant, and a younger version in Towson, plus a third planned for Montgomery County in the spring, Pho Dat Thanh would seem to mean just that for Chun, and those of us who enjoy the food his eateries offer.

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