The Best Way to Blow Your Jury Duty Dough: Give Pho Viet your 15 bucks

Three brand new crisp five dollar bills. Or maybe they're ironed. But it is hard to imagine any bills returning from the streets of Baltimore to that virginal state of weird papyric rectitude they have when the clerk hands them over each morning to prospective jurors. It is as if the money is supposed to remind us that, as jurors, we too should be clean and upright.

But after a few hours of sitting around and possibly being called off to walk single file in a line—not done since elementary school—to a courtroom where you sit with hundreds of others hoping that someone in the room sees something objectionable about you and sends you home (because even if you want to be a juror, in theory, today is usually a bad day to get called out of work for days or even weeks), you're ready to get out of there by the time lunch rolls around.

A few months ago, everyone who got jury duty had two big questions. Do you think I'll get on the jury of the Freddie Gray case? And where should I eat lunch?

Now that those trials have ended, only one question remains: What to do with those insanely stark green Lincolns?

There are obvious choices that you'll see if you walk around. But, in terms of staying close to the court and feeling infinitely far from it, Pho Viet (104 St. Paul St., [410] 244-1428) is the best thing going. Just look across the street when you're lining up for jury duty in the morning and you'll see it.

The only problem with Pho Viet used to be that it was too small for the crowds of lawyers and clerks and bailiffs and jurors who lined up to slurp soup each day. So when I first saw the sign for Banh Mi two doors down from Pho Viet, I didn't know if it was a good thing or a bad thing. The sign was by the Baltimore Plaza Hotel door, so I thought maybe the hotel was trying to steal their business. As it turned out, it was Pho Viet's second location, separated from the first only by the hotel lobby.

Because of the hotel, perhaps, both places seem like somewhere Joan Didion might have been grabbing a quick bite as the helicopters lifted people off the roof during the fall of Saigon. Especially the new side, which I find more pleasant, with its extremely high and ornate ceilings, gorgeous arched windows, and several tables and a bar, with TVs that are always playing CNN. Or to use an old CP convention, both dining areas feel kind of Upscale Blade Runner, with wavy new wave textures on the sides of counters paired with oddly imperial columns.

Since Mekong Delta ruined the beautiful thing it had going on Saratoga Street by moving into the bland food court at the Charles Towers apartment, Pho Viet is, to my taste, the city's reigning champ of pho. I subsisted on it much of the winter, ordering the veggie pho—but with the real pho beef broth for $7.50. Often I couldn't even finish that. But if you're a big eater, you could get a large for $8.50 and still have money left over.

The broth has that exquisite balance of savory lightness and greasy warmth as you slurp the noodles. If you want more than vegetable—a vegetarian dining companion didn't have a ton of other options—they've got beef, which includes rare steak, a crispy well-done brisket, and flank; chicken, shrimp, and seafood (all priced the same as the vegetable). I've never ventured to try the special combo, which adds tripe and tendons to the steak version.

There isn't a lot of great banh mi in town. Indochine has a solid one and then other places have their takes on banh mi (Red Emma's vegan version is good). Pho Viet's ($5.99) may not be entirely authentic—it doesn't have the smear of pate—but it offers a lot in return and is one of the best all-around sandwiches in town.

The bread is what does it. It's a long-held theory that whatever else a banh mi has, it must have a Vietnamese baguette. I've eaten the sandwich a couple dozen times now and the baguette is really the main draw, always crisp, almost brittle, on the outside and light and airy inside—lighter than an ordinary French baguette. That texture makes it the perfect vehicle to hold up under the fillings while also helping to soak up their flavor. It comes with pork belly, which like the bread is both crisp and chewy. On top of that is the pickled vegetables and cilantro—and an over easy egg.

It's amazing how much putting an egg on top of something can really bring together all of the other flavors. I put one on everything these days, but it is exceptionally good, and perfectly juicy, on this sandwich. And it's even better when you dip the sandwich into the small bowl of broth that comes with it and the egg juice mixes with the steamy broth.

Once or twice the pork belly was a bit too chewy and fatty. I know, it's pork belly, right, and that's how it's supposed to be, but on those occasions it seemed under cooked, not in a dangerous way but in a way that made me just kind of ignore the meat rather than savor it.

The noodle dishes ($8.99) are also spectacular, especially since, in weather like this, it is entirely too hot for a steaming bowl of pho. The cool, coiled rice noodles are topped either with vegetables and fried pork belly or vegetables and shrimp and come in a plastic bowl for easy carry-out. In this case, the crispiness of the fried pork belly is absolutely perfect against the rice noodles. I'd been eating so many banh mi, I slept on the rice bowls, but they're my new obsession.

They've also got smaller dishes like spring rolls ($4.99 for either veggie or with shrimp and pork) and egg rolls ($4.99 for either pork or veggie).

You can get any of this plus young coconut juice ($2.95), Vietnamese coffee ($3.50), or Thai tea ($3.50—it is the same thing, from what I can tell, as what is called bubble tea) and still have dough to spare. But you'll also leave feeling pleasantly distant from the grim world of the criminal justice system housed behind the metal detectors across the street.

Pho Viet is open Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-8 p.m. and on Saturday 11 a.m.-7 p.m. It is closed Sundays.

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