Back in March, I spent a weekend in Atlanta, catching up with old friends over evening beers, afternoon beers, and even, for variety’s sake, the odd brunch or two. My first time in the city, we went for boiled peanuts and burgers and had some stellar southern-style seafood, but the highlight of the visit, food-wise, was the last meal I had before flying out on Sunday night.
Given my perma-cravings for cheesy grits and barbecue, I didn’t expect a Vietnamese restaurant to play host to the best dining experience I’d have in town, but that it did. I wish I were more of an expert on Vietnamese food — sure, I enjoy the occasional banh mi and bowl of pho — but I’d love to be that person who has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things authentic. That way I’d know whether or not the standout dish I had at So Ba is the real deal or some crazy-addictive fusion concoction. (So far, my powers of Google-Fu have failed me.)
My friend raved about the innocuously named salt-and-pepper tofu (dau hu rang muoi) before our meal, for good reason, it turned out. Chunks of tofu — I assumed soft tofu, given the melty, oozing consistency, but this recipe calls for firm, so your guess is as good as mine — are deep-fried and then sautéed, with scallions and chilies, for maximum crunch. The result is a dish I’m still salivating over all these months later; though reminiscent of Danji’s tofu with ginger-scallion sauce, I haven’t been able to find this particular rendition in any Vietnamese restaurants in my own city. New Yorkers, any tips? Or do I need to book another flight to the Dirty South to get my fix?
The tofu alone would’ve been enough for a rave review, but everything else we ordered turned out to be just as great. We opted for fresh spring rolls (goi cuon thit nuong) as a starter, and I was pleasantly surprised: I tend to be underwhelmed by this classic (too often bland and gummy), but So Ba’s version, stuffed with slices of marinated-and-grilled pork, crisp lettuce, and pliant vermicelli noodles, was a flavor-bomb of chewy-crunchy warm-cool goodness, one that was only heightened by a dunk in the accompanying sweetened, chili-flecked fish sauce.
We split two mains, the first pho tai chin nam, with a complex, nuanced broth, still-pink eye-round and flank steaks, well-done brisket, and all of the attendant accoutrements. I added a squeeze of lime and a few sprigs of mint, but neither was really necessary — this was a fine bowl of soup all by itself.
Our final choice was a broken-rice dish: com bo luc lac, cubes of marinated filet mignon on a bed of Vietnamese fried rice, with lightly pickled carrots and fresh lettuce, cucumber, and cabbage on the side. Everything about this plate was just as crave-worthy as that tofu. The meat, with its pungent, sweet-and-salty coating, was unbelievably tender; the rice, with that satisfying wok-fry taste, was nutty and sticky, in the best possible way; and the vegetables, refreshingly clean and crisp, lightened the whole affair.
For those keeping score, that’s more than enough reasons to buy another plane ticket.
560 Gresham Avenue