Last month, I did an article about the grossly overlooked Hong Kong Supermarket food court, that included the fiesty pho at Pho Xe Lua, what I believe to be the best pho in Atlanta. After a flurry of response, it sparked the idea to put together a pho round-up for this eat-about-town column.
Many argue that Vietnamese cuisine isn’t nearly as exciting as, say, Chinese fare, which is loaded with depth and complexity.
Even I, an avid fan of Vietnamese cooking, must admit that they are mostly correct in their assertions. But while Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t have the explosiveness of Szechuan cooking or the depth that food from North China carries, I find that Vietnamese cuisine does have its own interesting and unique qualities.
I particularly enjoy the fun interplay between raw crunchy vegetables and warm meats.
Over the years, I have become fond of their use of herbs in pho — the quintessential dish of Vietnam, where it is eaten morning, day and night.
Here in Atlanta, almost all pho restaurants open by 10am — most by 9:30am — and sport dining rooms large enough to park a jet. Weirdly, most of my favorite pho haunts are on the small side, and tend to be hole-in-the-walls.
Cuan Ba 9
4285 Buford Hwy NE Atlanta
This hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joint has easily been the most eclectic over the years. I remember being served by a flamboyant server garbed in all bright purple and yellow, so bright I needed sunglasses just to place my order. That was back in the days when this lesser known Vietnamese eatery served the unique dishes of central Vietnam. The restaurant now serves a style of food one would find in the richer southern part of the country, a style that is more popular with Americans — as Co’m and Nam Phuong have proven time and time again. The pho here is stellar from the broth to the beef, and extra kudos to them for serving it with Thai chilies rather than jalapeno peppers.
Pho Xe Lua
5495 Jimmy Carter Blvd, Norcross
(Inside Hong Kong Supermarket)
The pho at this Hong Kong Supermarket food stall is good, and not just food court good. Even though you don’t hear or read much — if anything — about it, I believe it sneekily ranks among the best in the city. The soulful broth is pristine, rife with clove and anise. The beef always arrives a rosy pink center, perched atop a bed of vermicelli noodles — far better than the versions you’ll receive at highy regarded Pho Dai Loi #1, 2 or 3. The service is of course counter service, and don’t expect much in the way ambience — you will be eating inside an Asian supermarket, and not a very clean one at that.
5495 Jimmy Carter Blvd, Norcross
This is hands down the sexiest of the three. But don’t let the squeaky clean floors and elegantly robed walls chase you away, the pho at this pristinely kept Vietnamese restaurant is right up there with the best in town, even my favorite cheap hole-in-walls. The broth is a bit murkier than the others, and loaded with green onions for good measure, which seems to work well bouncing off those distinct clove and anise notes. The service is mild mannered, friendly and well known for pampering their American patrons. If you are one who has always wanted to try Vietnamese food but too intimidated — Nam Phuong would be a great ice-breaker.