Southern Maryland is not known for its ethnic restaurants. There are several Chinese places, a few Italian eateries and other occasional delights.
That makes it even harder to explain White Plains--home to the Greek Athenian Cafe and the Mexican Loredo's. And now there's a new ethnic restaurant in town, the New An Loi. It is almost two restaurants in one. New An Loi has extensive menus of both Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine.
It's not much to look at from the road, just another brick box of a building on Route 301 North. It might not have lured us in, but a reader strongly recommended we give it a try.
Once inside, we encountered a surprisingly friendly place with a cheerful and clean decor. The tables are covered with thick clear plastic over tablecloths and pink cloth napkins. Ceiling fans and music contribute to a very pleasant space.
Vince Dao and Sam Wong have been business partners for about 10 years and friends for longer. Somewhere along the line they discovered they had compatible working styles and business philosophies. Both believe successful restaurants are made of good food and good service, but the two men have very different styles that seem to complement each other. Dao, the chef, talks about things like his special top-quality steamed white rice, "that has a good smell when served," while Wong emphasizes customer service, reflecting his many years as a waiter.
"I've gone into places with lousy food and seen lots of people, while going into restaurants with wonderful food but few diners. Even with good food, if customers are not happy with service and don't feel at home, they don't bother," Wong said.
Since we're not very familiar with Vietnamese food, we visited several times, trying to sample as many different dishes as we could. To check out the authenticity of the cuisine, we invited a friend who spent last year studying in Saigon and Hanoi.
Let's start with the appetizers. We've tried Goi Cuon (summer shrimp rolls, $2.95), a cold rice-wrapped delight containing lettuce, shrimp and vermicelli accompanied by a peanut dipping sauce--delicious. Thjt Nuing Goi Cuon (grilled pork rolls, $2.95) was comparably prepared--again delicious. Off the Chinese menu, we tried the veggie spring roll ($1), hot and sour soup ($1.50) and fried dumplings ($3.95), all very good. The hot and sour soup had a particularly pleasing bite.
Our friend from Vietnam introduced us to Pho, which is Vietnamese noodle soup. It comes in a huge bowl and is the specialty of the house. Dao and Wong wanted to introduce Pho to Southern Maryland because it's something different and has been very popular elsewhere in the country. Our friend ordered Pho Ga Vien ($5.25), a combination of fishballs and noodle soup, and said it was the real Vietnamese Pho.
We later tried Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup, $5.25), which proved to be a wonderful dish for a chilly fall day. It was served with two sauces (plum and chili) and fresh bean sprouts, lime, cilantro and basil on the side. Another friend tried the spicy chicken noodle soup with vegetables ($5.95) and though he thought it was tasty, said it was not as spicy as he'd expected.
If you're in the mood for a more traditional main course than Pho, there are a ton of options. We tried a lobster special ($12.95) that comes with ginger scallion or black bean sauce. While it was a bit awkward to get out of the shell, it was worth the effort. Off the Chinese menu we tried chicken with chili and black bean sauce ($7.25). It, too, was satisfying.
When dinner is over, your server will bring you a pleasant plate of oranges and cherries on cracked ice along with your fortune cookie. In an area with limited ethnic food choices, the New An Loi is a welcome addition.
New An Loi
* Address: 4560 Crain Hwy., White Plains; 301-932-2021, 301-870-3659.
* Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
* Delivery: Within 5 miles, $15 minimum; carryout available.
* Prices: Entrees, $6-$12. Children's menu not available, but there are items for youngsters such as chicken fingers.
* Credit cards: Most major cards accepted.
* Best-kept secret: Judging from the empty parking lot, the restaurant itself may be the best-kept secret. They've been open only since May.
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