Indian joints Akbar and House of India sit in adjoining shopping centers, and their Vietnamese cousins An Loi and Pho Dat Trahn sit just a block apart as well. An Loi is my perennial favorite with a simple menu of delicious noodles, grilled meats and soups. Pho Dat Trahn offers those same basics -- plus a wider Vietnamese menu and decor one level dressier than An Loi's vibe of "just-the-food-ma'am."
Pho Dat Trahn pulls off the alchemy of Vietnamese food -- serving dishes full of tasty sauce and grilled meats, but somehow making them light and healthy. Like An Loi, Pho Dat Trahn serves up the Vietnamese basics -- the beef soup called "pho" and the noodles dishes called "bun." They're both great options to try this food because they're basically "pick your own adventure." You're either getting a beef broth with noodles or a bowl of noodles with a piquant
sauce, and you pick what meat you want on top.
The bun with lemongrass chicken (#H6) has been my favorite dish so far. Slightly spicier than the An Loi version. (Make sure you get the small dish of sauce to pour over the noodles. Our waitress forgot the dish at first, but apologized and grabbed one right away when we asked.) We also enjoyed the ginger chicken in a clay pot (#J10) -- not actually cooked in
a clay pot, but covered with the thick, rich sauce that I have had elsewhere -- and the sugar cane shrimp (#I1). The shrimp was something new. Think shrimp shish-kabob. Shrimp paste formed into thin patties around lemongrass stalks, then grilled and served with rice-paper wrappers, noodles, herbs and a peanut sauce. We rolled them up like fresh eggrolls.
Like food in Vietnam, the menu flows from these signature, local items through traditional Chinese dishes like chowfun, stirfries and even mapo tofu. You can really explore because most entrees cost less than $10, and the weekday lunch special lets you pick any three items for $6.25. Based on only two visits, I will be bypassing the appetizers to order more entrees. Summer rolls are a spectacular invention -- a light wrapper around vegetables, a slice of pork and shrimp -- but the Pho Dat Trahn roll wasn't as good as the main dishes. On our last trip, we ordered three entrees and packed up leftovers for lunch.
If you want to know more, check out this 2006 Chowhound post comparing Pho Dat Tran and An Loi and this 2007 Chowhound post about how An Loi and Pho Dat Trahn had been sold by their original owners. I can't compare before and after.
Pho Dat Trahn
9400 Snowden River Parkway
Columbia, MD 21045
NEAR: This is on the right if you're driving south on Snowden River. It's the same shopping center as Akbar with the bright, colorful store names.