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Viet Pearl in Ellicott City has great food, odd decor

In Howard County, excellent ethnic restaurants pop up in so many unlikely spots that finding a good meal in a nondescript strip mall is no longer surprising. But that doesn't take away from the appreciation of the good food we enjoyed after dinner at Viet Pearl, which opened in Ellicott City in December.

The restaurant's decor is strange at best, and the staff was still learning the ropes during our meal, but the food was excellent.

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Scene & Decor During our visit, Viet Pearl's space had not yet been scrubbed of visual references to its former occupant, a restaurant and sports bar called the Wild Cajun. A long bar down the side of the main room was emblazoned with the old name and large-scale, seafood-oriented decor, including an oversized crab and a three-dimensional sailboat, gave the room a vibe that was one part cheeky and nautical, one part fever dream.

Although odd for now, eventually, those design elements will disappear, according to restaurant management.

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Other aspects of the restaurant's layout were also strange, including ornate sinks placed outside the restrooms and visible from some parts of the dining room (possibly to make up for the sinks inside, which weren't working).

During our Thursday night visit, Viet Pearl was only sparsely occupied. The diners we spotted, all ensconced in high-backed booths, did seem pleased with their meals. We noticed that outside, the Viet Pearl sign was difficult to read, leading us to wonder if other potential guests had peered inside and, seeing the unusual decor, didn't realize that a new restaurant had opened in the Wild Cajun space.

Appetizers We started with the bo nuong la lot ($6.95), or grilled beef wrapped in betel leaves. Five small rolls of beef, marinated in a savory sauce and grilled, were sprinkled with scallions and peanuts.

The betel leaves, served on the side, were lettuce-like green leaves. Alone, they had a mild flavor but when wrapped around the meat, their freshness balanced the beef's intensity.

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Entrees Viet Pearl's menu is long and varied, including several unusual proteins, including frogs' legs and tripe. We took a chance on a dish of wild boar tossed with lemongrass and chilies, heo rung xao xa ot ($21.95).

It was a good call. Though not particularly tender, we liked the boar's gamey edge and the mix of spice and herbs was just right.

The heo kho to, caramelized pork flavored with a five-spice blend ($12.95), was equally tasty, with chunks of red and green peppers and onions providing a crunchy backdrop for sweet and spicy chunks of pork.

Together, the two dishes were served with a large covered dish filled with fluffy, fragrant rice.

One of the benefits of the recent uptick in local Vietnamese restaurants is the ability to compare their interpretations of pho. Sometimes, the broth is light and nearly clear; other times it is rich and meaty.

Viet Pearl's beef pho ($7.95) had a meaty base but quickly took on the fresh, herbaceous qualities of the scallions, cilantro and onions scattered in the bowl. The result was delicate but not timid.

We opted for the beef pho, including nothing but strips of steak and noodles. Given the broth's complexity, we didn't need anything else.

Drinks Viet Pearl's menu listed numerous alcoholic drinks and the space boasts a big bar, but it does not yet have a liquor license. Until its approval, BYOB is an option, with corkage fees of 50 cents per beer and a hefty $10 per bottle of wine (the restaurant's manager says the fees are often waived).

Service The kitchen was quick with food preparation and our waitress was pleasant and friendly, though she admitted she was new and still learning the menu. That meant she had to pop back into the kitchen before answering questions, but she did so happily and speedily.

Dessert Though several choices were listed on the menu, when we asked about dessert, our waitress explained (after checking) that ice cream was the only option available. Luckily, our scoops of the Vietnamese coffee and coconut flavors were sweet and creamy.

So although Viet Pearl doesn't seem quite ready for prime time yet, the delicious food means it's a good option now — and in time it could be great.

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