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An Loi in Columbia

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An Loi serves my favorite Vietnamese in Howard County. Perfect for winter with pho. Perfect for summer with light meals of noodles and chicken. An Loi Pho serves up friendly, accessible food with enough authenticity to be a local favorite.

Outside, it is a shopping center anonymous even for the suburbs, and inside, the decor isn't much more complex. Plastic tables. Minimal artwork. Silverware and condiments laid in on every table. The menu is simple and affordable, more of a soup and grill joint than a full display of Vietnamese cuisine with its sauteed vegetables and clay pot cooking. Most dishes are $6-$10, and most everything is a variation on noodles, meat and a sauce or soup. It's a fine selection if you know Vietnamese food, and it's easy to navigate if you want to figure it out. (Of course, it isn't the Eden Center, and my great disappointment is that no one here serves bahn mi sandwiches.)

The basic menu sections:

  • Pho: a beef soup with noodles and a meat of your choice. Eye round, brisket and flank are all easy to recognize. Tendon and tripe may be delicious to you, but they were easy for me to avoid. They're served with a plate of bail leaves, sprouts and a lime wedge. Tear up the basil, squeeze the lime and add the spouts to your taste, along with any of the spicy condiments on the table. A bowl is a meal. A large bowl is gorging, but I don't leave overly full.
  • Bun: white, soft noodles. They're in the pho, but if you order bun, you get a bowl of noodles with the meat of your choice and a sauce to pour overtop. The sauce coats everything, and the flavors are more grilled and lemongrass.
  • Everything Else: an array of grilled meats served with rice and variations of soup and noodles. On my last visit, the Vietnamese families seemed to be eating grilled pork and chicken.
  • Start off with a summer roll or beef wraped in grape leaves. They're both delicious. I prefer the shrimp rolls, which are served cool not fried and dipped in a peanut sauce.

And order the "salted plum soda." My wife stepped up and discovered this delicious offering. It's a hand-made drink, not a bottled soda. Club soda mixed with a little sugar and a few salted plums at the bottom. Imagine a lemonade with a touch of salt instead of sour. Refreshing and delicious. Exotic, but really not that strange.

If you're looking for other Vietnamese in Howard County, Pho Dat Trahn is a few blocks north on Snowden River. It has a larger menu, but I prefer An Loi's food.

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I was going to post that I had previously mentioned An Loi in several areas of the website, but when I did a search I could not locate any mention of them. But then I saw that this is posted in the Baltimore Restaurants forum, so I'm not sure if that has anything to do with my failed search. And I did use Google, since the previous version of the board did not allow searches with less than 3 characters. (As close to Baltimore as Columbia is, I think of them as two seperate areas. We travel often to Columbia, Arundel, etc., as I have family in that area.)

So back to the restaurant....

An Loi used to be located in Wheaton Plaza. It was exceptional at the time, but the rents became prohibitive and the owners moved the location up to Columbia. The location in Columbia did well, but the owners sold the restaurant a few years ago and moved away. We had noticed a decline in the Pho and other dishes and found out that they had definitely sold the place. Since then we have preferred Pho Dat Tranh over An Loi, but in all honesty it has been several months since we have eaten at Pho Dat Tranh.

Recently we found out that the owners had come back to the area to help out a family member; they had been running the new Song Phat restaurant in Wheaton, but will now be opening a new restaurant in Frederick MD. When I find out the name, I will post so those who are in the area can give it a try. And next time we're in Columbia we may give An Loi another try, but based on our previous experience have not been interested in returning.

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I was really craving some Pho so I stopped by on Saturday for lunch with a friend...I got your basic pho with all sorts of cuts while he got a typical beef entree...both were fantastic for the $7 or $8 bucks we spent. Some people seemed to complain on various website reviews that they had started skimming on the meat, but I didn't seem to have that problem. All the veggies were in good shape as well and the service was good enough for a place like that. We were a bit hungover and they noticed us downing water so they provided us with two glasses. :) Also split an order of summer rolls, which were perfect on the hot day with the shrimp and greens they used.

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