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Feb 21, 2008 11:27 AM

Baltimore Pho - Hollins Market area (long)

I wanted to report on my meal @ Baltimore Pho (1114-16 Hollins St, Balto 21223. Tel# 410 752-4746). Open Mon-Sat for lunch and dinner - bar stays open until...
Baltimore Pho is right opposite Hollins Market on the other side from Zella's Pizza.

The Short: Friend and I went for lunch today and thoroughly enjoyed our meal, so much so....we will MOST DEFINITELY be back!

The Space:
In the space that was the Cultured Pearl, they've done a nice job with the renovations. I know that many restaurant owners feel the pressure from investors to open ASAP and IMHO many open far too early, and sadly the kinks or the little fixes can be glaring and detrimental to encouraging repeat business. We've all been watching this space for BP to open and I'm glad that they took their time. If you've read my posts in the past you'll know that i've griped about ethnic places in Baltimore that are less than hip or swank: the tired bamboo/fake plants/ethnic-dress same same that seems to permeate these dining rooms. But no more! Lots of light, lots of face brick, strong bold colours and plates that work/fit the table - this was a major issue @ RA last night (we could barely fit the three plates on the table w/ our drinks and sushi accessories comfortably). The lighting is subdued and the decor is tasteful and whilst 'ethnic' - reflective of the cuisine - artistic and subtle. There are two rooms - bar and dining. The bar runs along the left side of the room and looked to have a decent selection of wines and liquor (including top shelf), on tap: Miller Lite, BlueMoon, Yuengling and...can't remember the others. The dining room on the right had 10-15 tables. It's not big.

The Food:
Our server brought us a bowl of keropok to start (prawn crackers) - which was a big hit w/ me. A childhood favourite they were served with house-made fish sauce; very tasty and sizzling and cracking when dipped into the sauce. Not a dieters delight - prawn flavoured flour crackers deep fried. YUM!
We started off w/ the Vietnamese Summer/Rice Paper Rolls, Fish cakes and Chicken Satay (app's ~$6)
The summer rolls were deelightful, two in an order they were compactly rolled and the ingredients weren't diced up or shredded too thinly. Left long they had a very artistic look to them and were quite tasty, served w/ dipping sauce. Chicken satay was pretty good - grilled chicken served w/ house made cucumber and peanut sauces. But the real start was the fish cakes. Simply the BEST fish cakes i've had in a while, they tasted homemade with outstanding chilli, green onion and fish flavour. These are NOT coddies or remotely similar in consistency, so if that's what you're expecting then you'll be disappointed. Fish cakes have a rubbery texture, but these weren't chewy or tasteless. Three in a portion they are cut into strips and served w/ dipping chilli sauce - i could eat these alone as a snack.
We shared a bowl of Pho ($8) - Rare. Served w/ the usual accompaniments it was pretty good, but not the best. The broth lacked depth, although once we loaded it up w/ the house fish sauce, fresh chilli's and hoisin, it was much better. Still, I would go back again and order the Pho - it certainly beats the drive to Columbia and overall is far superior to the Saigon Remembered in Govens.

Overall the menu is a lot smaller than other Vietnamese places around, the mains center on Pho - WD, Rare, Meatball, Combo (pork, chicken, fish cakes - i'm trying this one next time), Chicken and Vegetarian. A selection of Bun dishes - sort of like Pho, minus the broth but w/ the side dish of accompaniments and beef stew.
We finished off w/ Vietnamese Coffee ($3) bc we couldn't fit dessert in, but we were tempted - fried icecream - another childhood fav.
I checked out the dinner menu and it's pretty similar w/ a couple of added extra's plus they have a family style meal with three apps and four entrees (i think that was it), with rice for $33 pp, minimum 2 person order.

I also want to mention the service - it was great. Attentive enough that we got water refills and beer refills and plates taken away as they were demolished but not intrusive. The staff were all extremely nice and friendly. They've had a great response on the weekends so lets hope it continues. Whilst we were there two other tables came and went, granted we were also on the later side of lunch.

All in all, we spent $46 before tip and that included 3 draft beers. Money well spent. I hope that they get the support and do well - be nice if something along these lines could open up in Fells/Canton - why oh why don't we have a noodle joint closer to home????

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  1. Thanks so much for this great review. If we're not iced in, a fellow 'hound and I planned to check it out for lunch tomorrow. Now, I'm actually excited.

    And, indeed, why couldn't they open in the SE...but, hey, if it's good, I'll take it! Now, on to twist someone's arm to get a banh mi place!

    2 Replies
    1. re: baltoellen

      Bet the rent's a lot cheaper there than in Fells Point/Canton/Federal Hill/etc.

      1. re: baltoellen

        oh I know, a Banh Mi place would be so sweet but truthfully, i spent a three hour lunch last Sunday @ Kopitiam in DC (yes, hounders i know you don't all love it but..) and would be happy w/ just a basic noodle/roti/rice shack. Is that sooooo much to ask for???? I'm looking forward to hearing your reports!

      2. Hey, it's close to me. I've got tomorrow off. I might try to make it up there for lunch.

        1 Reply
        1. re: JonParker

          Ellen, Jon, are you guys still going? I may head in today on my way to work, weather permitting.

        2. Braving the non-ice storm, two 'hounds and I made it to Baltimore Pho this afternoon. I think my two dining companions will chime in later.

          Before beginning, I should first point out the I was the most negative of the three about the food. I also initially derided the book length section of the menu (which we were asked to read) regarding the restaurant's origin. I thought everything was just too sunshiny and a bit self-congratulatory. It was much more about neighborhood revitalization then about food. While I give them major props for opening a business to help out the neighborhood, no one's really going to be a repeat visitor if the food isn't any good.

          Like aussiewonder, I really liked the decor and the vibe of the place, although unlike AW, I'm one of those people incredibly fond of very cheesy ethnic places. But, it's nice to have an alternative.

          Anyway, on to the food. The prawn crackers were highly addictive, but I felt as though I've had them before. It turns out that they are bought as little disks, and then fried. They are fried very well, but if you're not making them from scratch, it would be great if they could give them to diners warm, where they could really melt in your mouth.

          We also had the fish cake. Very fishy. I didn't love it, didn't hate it, but it would be doubtful that I would order it again.

          We then had the summer rolls. These were excellent, and could easily hold their own against anyone else's.

          I had the chicken pho. It was highly disappointing. The broth was close to flavorless and needed to be seriously doctored with sauces. The chicken was relatively tasteless chicken breast, which didn't help inspire. I also didn't think they gave quite enough of the veggies to go in, and all and all, it could have used a bit more herbs.

          I tried my companion's pho tai (rare beef) and thought the broth could best be described as watery. I think there were great, pho-like underlying flavors, but it was thin and very weak.

          My other companion had the pork bun, which he loved.

          We finished up with some banana bread pudding with ice cream. The texture was pretty off, and the bananas seemed to taste like baby food. I also had the Vietnamese coffee, which, well, just wasn't. Like the pho, it was far too watery, and I'm used to cafe sua being very syrupy.

          Despite all these negatives, I was really sad to leave. The staff was so nice--there was more staff than patrons--and were so eager to please that I hated to go and leave them with nothing to do. They were sometimes a bit TOO helpful, i.e., pointing out the veggies that went in the pho. These are bean sprouts. This is lime. This is sriracha sauce, etc. I think that a good strategy would be to ask if there are any questions about the food, or how to eat it, and leave it at that.

          I don't think that they are that far off in being able to be a real asset to the Baltimore restaurant scene. Their heart is definitely in the right place, now, they just need to put their food there, too.

          16 Replies
          1. re: baltoellen

            Wow, Pho is all about the broth and it sounds like they don't have that down at all.

            1. re: baltoellen

              "I'm one of those people incredibly fond of very cheesy ethic places". Jeez, Ellen I would have thought you had higher moral standards than that! ;) I was the hound who had the beef pho, and I found the broth to be good. I wouldn't call it watery but it wasn't the heartiest broth I've ever had. On the other hand, I'm no pho expert. I found the fish cakes fishy in a good way as they often seem too bland to me. I found the flavor of the banana bread pudding (made with little red bananas) excellent but the texture was gluey. The other hound present suggested that heating it in an oven rather than the microwave might have solved this.

              1. re: ko1

                ...and, sometimes my core beliefs are dive-y, too. Thank goodness for the edit function.

              2. re: baltoellen

                Wow! Even though I went with BaltoEllen, it appears we were at different restaurants:
                first, the prawn crackers. If you have made them, you know that within two minutes of coming out of the oil they cooked in, they cool down.
                then to my entree: what is known in Vietnamese restaurants as bun (with an accent) is an assortment of vegetables in a large bowl with a flavored protein. I chose the barbecued pork, which was a meltingly tender and very porky cut, with a Viet sweet sour sauce for me to pour over it. I also added cilantro and sliced jalapeno. Great flavors and a variety of textures. I tasted the beef pho, which, while mild, had a real flavor base, and a choice of several fresh condiments to add to it. Of our three entrees, the weakest was the chicken one, I agree. With a cuisine that is mild, chicken breast may not be the best choice.
                The dessert used the fruity pink bananas, that gave it a very present taste, compensating for the rather gummy texture.
                If you have tasted the real thing, in Vietnam, this restaurant may be a disappointment. But if, like me, your comparison is with the half dozen other Vietnames restaurants in Balimore, Baltimore Pho is a fun and better addition to the bunch.

                1. re: crowsonguy

                  Just wait until we have our chow outing at Pho'll see that you can get good pho inside the beltway, too....No need to compare to the pho at the source.

                  <The dessert used the fruity pink bananas, that gave it a very present taste,>

                  I think I caught ko1's disease of looking at typos, but I assume you meant "pleasant." Or, is present a new way to describe food, as opposed to, say, food that's been hanging around for a while? ;-)

                  Also, I would never describe Vietnamese cuisine as "mild."

                  1. re: baltoellen

                    No, Baltoellen, I meant present, as in a taste that is more definite and distinctive than that of regular bananas. And I know you wouldn't describe Vietnamese food as mild, but I would, and I did.

                    1. re: crowsonguy

                      >But if, like me, your comparison is with the half dozen other Vietnames restaurants in Balimore, Baltimore Pho is a fun and better addition to the bunch.>

                      Well, perhaps an adjective besides "mild" would not be used if your familiarity with the cuisine extended beyond a few mediocre places in the Baltimore area.

                2. re: baltoellen

                  Chicken pho just sounds so wrong! :-)

                  1. re: Hal Laurent

                    I've actually found loads more pho ga (chicken) in Vietnam that beef. (Weirdly, or not, I've had much better beef-based pho in the US than I've ever had in Vietnam!)

                    1. re: baltoellen

                      Is pho ga made with chicken broth rather than beef broth? Is the broth seasoned similarly? If not, how is it seasoned?

                      1. re: Hal Laurent

                        My experience with pho ga is that it has some ginger in the broth, but beyond that, I'm not so sure. A very good question! But one of the biggest differences for me, is there is this amazing garlic vinegar stuff and loads of incredibly great limes to throw in your soup.

                        1. re: baltoellen

                          I didn't taste it, but it looked like chicken broth to me.

                          1. re: ko1

                            This Batimore Pho pho was chicken broth. But pho ga normally is chicken broth plus....But, perhaps we're witnessing the birth of a new cuisine, like Tex-Mex or Italian-American? ;-)

                  2. re: baltoellen

                    I think we all should be grateful of the great services! when was the last time you ate at an asian restaurant and get that type of service...NEVER!!

                    1. re: jaybaltimore

                      Although I planed it, I missed the big chow outing at Pho #1, but everyone commented on the great service. As I said earlier, I do hope BP does well and builds up that 'hood. But, I'd take crappy service with good food over the opposite any day!

                  3. My wife and I went Friday night, and had a mixed experience. First, I was surprised at the upscale decor and the attempt at "sophistication" i.e. - taking our coats, uniforms and ties on the waitstaff. This is Sowebo for christ sakes and we were dressed very casually, as were the other diners. Once we sat down the waitstaff was eager and freindly, but maybe too attentive - I barely had time to read the menu, let alone the story about the restaurant, etc. before 2 servers were asking if we were ready to order.
                    So, we both ordered the rare beef pho, paper rolls and crispy spring rolls. We really liked both rolls - fresh ingredients, lettuce, mint, pickled carrots and apple to roll the spring rolls in; hoisin sauce and nuoc cham sauce were good. And We both liked the prawn crackers.
                    Now on to the pho - We both agreed, the broth was weak. Sort of watery and flavorless. It would be much better if it had some more fat and a healthy dose of fish sauce. Not a hard thing to remedy but it is certainly important. The condiments and veggies were fresh and tasty, but I had to dump anything I could, plus the nuoc cham sauce in it to get some flavor. I had the vietnamese coffee for dessert, which I enjoyed - I did not find it watery. Overall, we were disappointed, as we were hoping for some good pho in the city limits. I think I would come back, but not order the pho. They had alot of other interesting dishes on the menu, and the prices are reasonable. .....One good thing - its better than Saigon Remembered!!

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: AckAck

                      Yes, it certainly is better than Saigon Remembered. When I went back for a second visit, I again doctored my Pho w/ all that they put forth in front of me. I don't mind doing it, and it certainly added something to the flavour, however, I shouldn't HAVE to...

                      1. re: aussiewonder

                        <<Yes, it certainly is better than Saigon Remembered>>

                        On that point, I most definitely agree!

                    2. Me and a couple of my classmates and regular pho-buddies went here last Thursday. We were very surprised by the ambience -- it was really nicely decorated, and the white linen tablecloths, coat check, and uniformed waiters was not what we were expecting in a pho place.

                      Unfortunately, the pho was disappointing. It's been described here as "watery", and I would echo that, with a strangely sweet flavor that really shouldn't be in pho broth. There was a lack of "beefiness" and soul in the broth. The beef selection in the pho was also limited to "rare" and "well-done" beef, no tendon or brisket. The serving size was also quite small (important to those of us on a student budget!).

                      On the plus side, the fried spring roll was among the best I've had here, with good accompaniments of lettuce, picked vegetables, mint, and apple (!) to wrap it up with. The herbs accompanying the rolls and pho were impeccably fresh, including a sawtooth herb (don't know what it's called) that I've rarely seen in pho places in the US. The fish cakes were good, but not much better than the fish cakes I get frozen from H-Mart.

                      We were hopeful that we could find a reasonable pho shop closer to Baltimore City than Catonsville, but based on our experience, Baltimore Pho isn't it.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: daveinmd

                        I was there with my wife on Saturday night. I thought the broth heartier than on my previous visit. I chatted with the owner and he said that the pho they are making is based on that of a particular region south of Saigon where the broth is lighter.