When I first arrived in Baltimore 20 years ago, it was de rigueur for Hopkins students—notorious for regarding any neighborhood beyond Charles Village as off-planet—to venture over to Sowebo in search of various kinds of amusement, mostly in the form of cheap but delicious food. The 'hood was newly cool, and we regularly set out for Sunday brunch at Gypsy Café, pizza at the Telltale Hearth, or burritos at Mencken's Cultured Pearl.
The latter we frequented so much you could have called it our usual stomping grounds—usual, that is, whenever we could get there early enough to beat the out-the-door lines for a table. Tex-Mex was unheard of in Baltimore back then, but the improbably named Mencken's boasted huge burritos, primo guacamole, and even the Mexican beer Negro Modelo on the menu. Plus, you could crayon on the paper tablecloths and feel all bohemian and artsy.
And Sowebo was an artist's haven, full of not only art but community activism and high hopes for the neighborhood. Many of Sowebo's artists and activists still soldier on, but when Mencken's put up the "Closed" sign for good about 10 years ago, it signaled for a lot of people that the vaunted renaissance had come to a screeching halt.
Few locals can say exactly what nipped Sowebo's resurrection in the bud, but most will tell you that since Mencken's died they stopped going there. Artists and activists, sadly, do their good work in obscurity unless business thrives.
So few neighborhood events have garnered as much notice as the opening of Baltimore Pho early this year in the Cultured Pearl's former space. The place is as much a statement as a restaurant—owner and Sowebo booster Jim Collins didn't name it Baltimore Pho for nothing. It's about giving the neighborhood a second life by bringing in people from beyond the area.
Good thing Collins is canny enough to know that if you build it, they will come only if you build it to be really, really good. And Baltimore Pho is that.
The restaurant's interior is strategically designed to convey a fine-dining vibe without intimidating—or giving away the fact that this is a great place for a cheap meal. All that's left of Mencken's are the best parts: warm, exposed-brick walls and a beautiful faux pressed-tin ceiling. All else is a handsomely modern, red-and-black venue in keeping with the Asian cuisine.
Despite the name, there's much beyond pho here. (For the record, I know you're supposed to pronounce it "fuh," but unless you're Vietnamese, that sounds plain silly. I'm sticking with "foe.") Appetizers should be ordered in multiples and shared among friends, especially the delicate and light rice paper rolls, stuffed with a mosaic of pretty, perfectly balanced tastes of chives, pale pink shrimp, mint, lettuce, green apples, and noodles, wrapped so that the bright green spring onion within forms a clever little "tail." They're exemplary, as are the spring rolls—crunchy fried specimens with ground pork and shrimp that you cover in green apples (yes, delicious) and mint and then wrap in lettuce leaves to cool the hot rolls.
Various dipping sauces—fish, hoisin, sriracha—are brought to the table, and you are free to break the rules with abandon about what gets dipped into what. One night, Señor M and I also ordered the fried calamari, an entrée, to split as an appetizer. Do that. These are seriously large hunks of squid, battered and fried, as the saying goes, to perfection.
Among the non-pho entrées, one night I chose the Vietnamese barbecued chicken, which, like the calamari, would be a good dish to share as an appetizer. It's a simple dish of boneless chicken breasts marinated in the chef's special sauce and grilled, good but perhaps a little too one note for an entrée. More intriguing was M's bo xao lang, beef and spices in coconut milk—a mix of finely cut flank steak and wood-ear mushrooms in a very subtly heated coconut curry.
If I were laying out a meal plan for the evening, I'd probably start with an assortment of appetizers and maybe some vam lang (battered and fried) flounder, shrimp or calamari, and then go on to Baltimore Pho's exquisite version of green papaya salad, a fragrant platter of shredded papaya, carrots, and mint, surrounded by fat shrimp and topped with chopped peanuts and a heavenly nuoc mam dressing. Big enough to share, it also makes a fine, light entrée.
But if you share, you can go on to the pho. There's been all sorts of chitchat on food message boards and blogs about the authenticity and quality of Baltimore Pho's namesake dish.
I'm not an expert—I've probably had pho a half dozen times in my life, and I haven't been to Vietnam—but I know a great, complex broth when I taste it, and I don't really care or know whether Baltimore Pho's tastes like the pho you get in Saigon. It's rich and fragrant and layered with subtly sweet and savory flavors. Vietnamese-born executive chef Larry Huynh clearly knows what he's doing.
Our waiter brought the broth loaded with rice noodles, along with its accompanying bean sprouts, basil, saw leaf, and sauces, and advised me to wait a while to drop my raw, thinly sliced beef into the soup so that it wouldn't cook too rapidly. It was so good that I had a hard time keeping it away from M.
Baltimore Pho offers pho with chicken, well-done or rare beef, seafood, and even a vegetarian pho (not traditional, but who cares?), so there's pho for all. There's also a full roster of Vietnamese and other beers, sakes, cocktails, and a thoughtful wine list designed to complement the tastes of Southeast Asia. The wait staff was unobtrusive but extremely well-trained, courtesy of house manager Rodney Winkler, a Kali's Court alum. In short, this is a place I plan to come back to, simply because it's a rare find and a bargain to boot.
One Saturday night, Jim Collins himself made the rounds, making sure his customers were happy and well-fed. He's obviously proud of the place, and banking on its ability to draw people back into the neighborhood. Let's hope his story has a fairy-tale ending.