Howard County office workers have discovered the pleasures - and discount prices - of pho, the classic Vietnamese soup typically brimming with slurpy rice noodles, vegetables and chewy slices of rib-eye steak or some other meat.
Pho Dat Thanh, an unassuming restaurant that has been serving pho and other Vietnamese dishes for about six years, has become a magnet for business lunches, typically roaring with activity each weekday afternoon.
The space, with its richly colored tile floors, was home to an Italian restaurant in a previous life. But these days, the tables are close together and the atmosphere is hectic.
Little attention is paid to niceties. Don't expect your server to introduce herself or chat. In fact, if you linger for more than a few nanoseconds over the multipage menu, she will rush off, perhaps forgetting all about you until you catch her eye as she bustles around the room.
Mostly, she's delivering pho, the classic beef noodle soup, offered in about 15 not-all-that-different varieties. Some versions have flank steak, some have tripe, some have brisket, and most have some combination of the above.
Before the soup comes out, you get a little plate piled high with bean sprouts, fresh basil and sprigs of cilantro, accompanied by a wedge of lime. Then comes the giant, steaming bowl of brew. Long, thin rice noodles waft to the bottom, while substantial slices of meat bob to the top.
Both chopsticks and western utensils are supplied, so it's up to the customer which to choose, but adding the sprouts and herbs, a bit at a time, and splashing in some lime juice is part of the fun.
Not in the mood for pho? The $6.25 lunch special is the second-best choice. It includes three different entrees, plus rice, and patrons can choose among options like bo kho, a stewed beef; tom nuong, which is grilled shrimp; or thit heo nuong, grilled pork.
And there are plenty of other choices too, ranging from clay pot chicken ($9.50) to chow fun with seafood ($12.50) to vegetarian dishes like lemongrass tofu ($8.95). We tried a lot of different items. It was all good, but I have to admit, no one dish bowled me over.
The clay pot chicken was attractively presented and featured tender pieces of white meat in a velvety, mild sauce. It was lovely, but after a while, it got boring. A few vegetables would have been a welcome addition.
Another chicken dish, the ginger chicken ($9.50) had a more flavorful sauce, though it didn't taste particularly of ginger.
For the lunch special, we opted for lemongrass chicken, stir-fried vegetables and grilled shrimp. It was just the right amount of food, though we were disappointed that the chicken so closely resembled the other dishes. The stir-fried vegetables were a nice combination of broccoli, carrots and baby corn, but the flavor was uninteresting. They tasted as if they had been sauteed in nothing more than soy sauce. The grilled shrimp, part of the same lunch platter, were also simply prepared.
We started our meal with a couple of spring rolls ($3.15) packed with finely minced and flavorful chicken, shrimp and vegetables. The sprightly filling made this one of the more flavorful dishes, but the rolls themselves were overly fried and a tad greasy.
The Vietnamese food at Pho Dat Thanh is lighter than most Chinese food and not quite as spicy as Thai. A healthy, inexpensive meal here can easily run less than $10.
So what if not every dish is a culinary marvel? It's clear that Pho Dat Thanh has earned its loyal following, one steaming bowl of pho and one inexpensive dish at a time.
Pho Dat Thanh
9400 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Sunday
Appetizers $3.15-$7.95, entrees $6.25-$12.50
[Outstanding: -- Good: -- Fair or uneven: -- Poor:]