This might be a bit of a generalization or an assumption, but I feel like when most people think of Vietnamese cuisine, they automatically think of pho. I know I do.
The slightly savory, slightly sweet beef noodle soup has become a mainstay comfort food across the U.S., and there is nothing like a big bowl of pho to clear up a cold or warm you up on a chilly or rainy day.
And as great as pho is, there is so much more to Vietnamese cuisine. The noodles and rice dishes of the Asian country are often forgotten about and sometimes not even offered on menus, as pho has become more and more popularized and Instagram-able.
But luckily for all of us here in Frederick, a new restaurant has said “out with the old and in with the new” and offers a menu that is not primarily focused on the pho. Other Vietnamese restaurants in the county, such as Lucky Corner, also offer an expansive Vietnamese menu, but it’s nice to see another restaurant open that is more than just pho.
Pho An Loi — or some version of it — has been in the county for quite some time, but it was taken over by new owners in December. Driving down Rosemont Avenue, you could almost miss it, but it’s well worth a stop.
The menu is vast, offering numerous noodle and rice dishes, and that’s where I decided to focus my attention for this week’s review.
To start off your meal, you can stick to the traditional route and order the Summer Rolls, which are packed with slivers of cooked pork, plump shrimp, stringy vermicelli noodles and a smattering of cilantro, lettuce, basil and some other greens. The accompanying peanut sauce gives the fresh rolls a lovely, sweet touch, and the rolls are quite large, making them the perfect appetizer to share or eat by yourself if you’re especially hungry.
If you don’t want to stick to the traditional route, go for the Spicy Papaya Salad. This is traditionally a Thai dish, but Pho An Loi serves it up marvelously. A heaping pile of shredded unripe papaya, chopped tomatoes, big leaves of Thai basil and more of that plump shrimp are tossed together with lots of chili—which in this case I believe is a combination of chili peppers, powder and flakes—crushed peanuts and a sweet sauce that is usually made from ingredients such as fish sauce and sugar. Pho An Loi’s papaya salad is one of the best I’ve had, but it packs a ton of heat. This salad is no joke, and I was actually dabbing my nose with my napkin because it was so spicy. And I have a pretty high heat tolerance. So if spice is not your thing, maybe stay away from this one. The salad is a perfect light appetizer and a great starter to any of Pho An Loi’s main dishes.
For main courses, if you want to venture out of your normal pho diet, there are two dishes I highly recommend.
The first is the Grilled Lemongrass Beef. Thin slices of steak are marinated and grilled and served atop white rice with a sprinkling of fresh scallions and a little side salad. The marinade on this beef is to die for. It has that perfect tangy and sweet combo, and there is a slight char flavor from the grill. The simple white rice pairs perfectly and doesn’t take away from the incredible flavor of the beef. You will be finishing this one in one sitting, I guarantee.
If you’re more of a chicken person, go for the Cripsy Maryland Chicken rice dish. Vietnamese-style fried chicken is served with tomato rice and topped with ginger sauce. What I liked most about this dish was how the chicken was done. It wasn’t battered heavy like a lot of American-style fried chicken but had a nice and thin yet crispy skin to it. The tomato rice was subtle in flavor but shined through and helped tone down the savoriness and saltiness of the fried chicken.
Another great Vietnamese dish to try at Pho An Loi, and one of my long-time personal favorites, is the vermicelli noodles. You can choose your protein or a combination of proteins and, best of all, you can get that amazing lemongrass beef with it if you want. The only thing I didn’t like about Pho An Loi’s vermicelli noodles: The sauce served with it was a little too sweet. I like to drench my noodles in the Vietnamese sauce, and I prefer something that is a little tangier and vinegar-based to complement the rest of the dish.
I did try the pho, too, and while it was delicious, I felt like it was missing that classic, savory flavor that comes from the famous beef broth. Everything was just a little too sweet and subtle for me, and I was looking for more of a flavor punch.
But overall, Pho An Loi is serving up some fantastic Vietnamese cuisine and, most importantly, the dishes are more authentic and less mainstream. It may not be my go-to for pho, but that Lemongrass beef and papaya salad will always call my name.
Katryna Perera is the food reporter and critic for the Frederick News-Post. A longtime “food enthusiast” she has taken cooking classes both domestically and internationally and is continuously following food trends and restaurant openings. She also briefly studied food reporting while attending Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Follow Katryna Perera on Twitter: @katrynajill; on Instagram: @kjp_eats.