Thai street food comes to Towson

Noodle Charm (1220 E. Joppa Road, #106, Towson, [410] 494-8424, recently infiltrated the industrial eastern fringes of Towson, a territory long dominated by chain restaurants. This sprightly café slinging Bangkok-style street food is a much-needed oasis of freshness and flavor amid the area's desert of mass-market dining options. (Noodle Charm, in fact, sits directly across from a Bob Evans, an Applebee's, and a Potbelly Sandwich Shop.)

This small, family-run storefront restaurant is a refreshing antidote to industrial dining. The decor is simple but fun and stylish, and the service is both friendly and prompt, with no attempted upsell to this month's featured appetizer. In keeping with the Bangkok-style approach, the menu offers inexpensive, quickly prepared noodle soups and rice dishes bursting with assertive tastes like Thai chilies, fish sauce, tamarind, and curry.

Chain places trade on the doctrine that the best surprise is no surprise, and so what you get is institutionalized mediocrity for dinner. Noodle Charm's approach, however, is to urge its clientele to explore, and the staff seems excited to share its culinary philosophy of "the four flavors." The compact menu offers a dozen or so traditional Thai dishes like tom kha gai (chicken with galanga root and coconut milk), but Noodle Charm's centerpiece, "Noodle Your Way" option is a fun way to initiate oneself.

It's a four-step process, the first being deciding whether you want a small ($7.95) or big ($9.95) bowl of noodles. Step two is to decide whether you want them served simply as noodles ("haeng") or as a soup ("naam") or-as would seem to be the best of both worlds-"dry" with broth on the side. Next comes naming your noodles, choosing from different varieties to form the foundation of the dish. There are rice stick noodles (think of the kind used in pad thai), wire-thin rice vermicelli (as in pho), wide, flat yellow egg noodles, soybean-based cellophane noodles. The final step is to customize your order by specifying meat, vegetables, and garnishes. Add-ins include proteins from chicken, pork, and beef to fish balls, tofu, or duck; vegetables like preserved mustard greens, bean sprouts, or mushrooms; and toppings like cilantro, scallions, and ground peanuts.

In very short order a steaming, aromatic bowl will be placed before you by a smiling server, who also plunks down a quartet of condiments alongside it. These represent the four flavors-sweet, sour, spicy/hot, and umami-that form the foundation of Thai cuisine and are here represented by sugar, chilies in vinegar, ground chili powder, and fish sauce. The Noodle Charm menu urges diners to try the dish first without any adornment, establishing a sort of baseline, and then experimenting with different condiment combinations. (Sprinkling sugar on top of savory noodles seems sort of antithetical at first, but it turns out the sweetness serves to simultaneously amp up and put into balance the other, more intense flavors.)

If you're just not up for the challenge of designing your own noodle bowl, there are many other delicious options. A pork shoulder stew ($8.95) pairs silky, unctuous pork whose richness supports a fascinatingly complex combination of flavors. The meat's initial sweetness opens into subtle spice-cinnamon and coriander among them-all overlaid with a clean, consistent chili heat. The generous pile of meat rests atop a mound of steamed white rice and is ringed by garnishes-sliced hard-boiled egg, pickled mustard greens, and copious cilantro, with the zingy house chili-garlic vinaigrette to sprinkle sparingly as you go.

There are as many vegetarian options as there are meat-centric offerings at Noodle Charm, and sometimes they play it both ways. There is a "veggie lover" version of tom kha gai, for instance, as well as an authentic chicken-based option. The classic version of this Thai sweet-and-sour soup ($8.95) pairs chicken and coconut milk with hefty buckwheat soba noodles, mushrooms, pineapple, carrot slices, and bean sprouts, spiced up with the house-made roasted chili sauce and a ton of lime juice. It is a clean, compelling, very satisfying concoction. The vegan version, which the menu calls "coconut noodle soup" ($7.95), uses mushroom broth in the place of chicken stock, swaps out the soba for lighter rice noodles, and then piles in the vegetables. It is a much lighter dish, with nicely balanced flavors, and the richness of the coconut milk renders it also surprisingly hearty and satisfying.

Other options at Noodle Charm show the same level of sincerity and able execution. Hot ginger tea ($2) is a potent, brain-clearing brew, and the young coconut juice ($2.95) is made on the spot and served with style. A tall glass of the coconut nectar, freshly rendered from a green coconut, bears layered slices of the tender white flesh at the bottom and arrives on a small silver tray with a straw and long-handled spoon for retrieving the coconut meat. That in itself is dessert-worthy, but do not skip dessert at Noodle Charm (any dessert, $4.95). Yes, there is sticky rice with mango, which was very nice, but there is also-even better-a delicately fried banana with a slightly earthy, barely sweet red bean sauce. My plan is to go back soon to try the house special invention: fried wonton s'mores with chocolate sauce. It sounds strange, even potentially unfortunate, but having savored the charms of this spunky and sincere little café, I am willing to try it on faith. Charmed, indeed.

Noodle Charm is open Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Friday and saturday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

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