Tour of duty

Visits to three Vietnamese eateries around the ATL

"Where the hell am I?" Young Eric, who was having his wisdom teeth removed the next day, said that his mama didn't live too far away in Jonesboro. Ken, who hates his job, said his mama didn't live too far away in Griffin and he might buy a house down there and get a job at Wal-Mart or something.

We were in Forest Park, of all places, looking for Quan Vy Da, a Vietnamese restaurant that has attracted a lot of attention among lovers of my favorite Asian cuisine. We finally found it in one of those shopping centers that looks like it's waiting for a tornado to finish it off. We walked to the door and encountered a sign that indicated we should go three doors down. We did. We sat at a table opposite a very elaborate karaoke stage in the otherwise empty restaurant. Our server, who spoke practically no English, handed us the menu.

Several dishes had been recommended and I couldn't find any of them. I described, in my best broken English, one of them and the server replied, "Never have."

Again, I wondered, "Where the hell am I?"

"Thanh Thanh," she said.

"This isn't Quan Vy Da?" I asked.

"No closed no know when open to drink please?"

OK. I ordered a salty plum soda and took a deep breath. Later, re-checking the sign, I found that Quan Vy Da has indeed closed "temporarily for repairs" and Thanh Thanh (4446 Jonesboro Road, 404-363-9908) is an altogether separate business.

Disappointed, we nonetheless ate well. Summer rolls — shrimp and herbs wrapped in rice paper and dipped in peanut sauce — were better than average because of the use of strong herbs. But even better was a "pork skin roll" that featured chewy pork with noodles and herbs.

Barbecued chicken was a hen cooked hot and fast so that the skin was extra-crispy. Dip it in a savory soy-based sauce, almost a plum sauce but not so sweet. Our bun, or vermicelli, dish was mediocre. Too much shredded lettuce and not enough fresh herbs were in the bowl with the noodles. I ordered ours topped with roasted pork and imperial roll, both pretty lackluster.

The best entree was a marinated grilled pork chop served over steamed rice, with a hunk of the pate often used on Vietnamese sandwiches. You'll want to drag pieces of the chop through the fish sauce but it's quite piquant alone.

"We didn't ever have anything like this when I was living out here," Eric said. Indeed, the entire south side of Atlanta is becoming as heavily populated by Hispanic and Asian people as Chamblee.

And Vietnamese restaurants are at long last moving closer to town, too. The latest to open is Viet Chateau (254 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-373-0100) in Decatur. I hate not feeling better about this restaurant, because the atmosphere is so friendly, but as is usual in such attempts, Viet Chateau compromises authenticity to appeal to the mainstream palate. Lemonade, for example, is not the salty variety — just ordinary lemonade.

The mainstreaming isn't always a failure. Fried chicken wings, "battered in a very special sauce," really were tasty. Imperial rolls, though rather lukewarm, were fine though not served with any herbs or lettuce in which to roll them. Bun with "Hanoi-style charbroiled pork" was missing its roasted peanuts and had very few mint leaves. Still, the pork itself, as our waiter Viet promised, was indeed better than the usual. Weirdly, we were served the dish on a flat plate instead of in a bowl. Obviously, chopsticks are not regulation here.

Stuffed cabbage bordered on the completely bizarre. It's one of those dishes that shows up to indicate Vietnam's French influence but reminds you, with its pork filling, of a Chinese dumpling made with limp cabbage under a very unpleasant, watery tomato sauce.

My dinner companion, Rick, insisted we have the dessert of fried banana pieces with green tea, vanilla and ginger ice cream. How this ends up on a Vietnamese menu, I don't understand. It wasn't bad if you like Greenwood ice cream, which a staff member proudly told us we were eating.

What to do? Viet Chateau is too mainstream and Thanh Thanh, though entirely authentic, poses a language barrier that will intimidate anyone without my bull-in-a-china-shop manner. The answer is the same it's been for more than 10 years. Bien Thuy (5098 Buford Highway, 770-454-9046), even among the explosion of pho and full-service Vietnamese restaurants on Buford Highway, remains the city's best choice.

Suzanne Bojtchewsky, who has authored two cookbooks, has an enormous following in our city. Everything is cooked to order and entirely authentic. Thus imperial rolls are served piping hot with a plate heaped with lettuces and herbs that Suzanne will go through identifying for you in great detail. "This is a basil with a touch of lemon," she said to my friend Rose and me last week as she gently reprimanded us for not wrapping the rolls in it.

Bun dishes are by far the city's best. Meats and seafood are grilled and placed in large quantities over the chilled noodles. Last week, Rose and I ate a juicy papaya salad, not quite as spicy as the Thai version, filled with shrimp and pieces of pork. Suzanne also served us a remarkable off-the-menu dish of an odd crayfish imported from Southeast Asia. It was served with rice in a complex, dark sauce, almost like a mole. Rose saved the leftovers in a napkin.

With its stark contrasts of hot and cold foods, meats and herbs, Bien Thuy's cuisine is perfect summertime food.

New in Grant Park

Mi Barrio (404-223-9279) has opened at 571 Memorial Drive, near Boulevard. The restaurant, opened by the very friendly Lopez family from Guadalajara, is serving authentic Mexican fare. My favorite dish so far has been the chile relleno — a fat poblano, stuffed with white cheese, lightly battered and fried. Tacos — made with carne asada, tongue or chicken — are good lunch choices, as are the gorditas, little corn cakes stuffed with the same choice of meat and lettuce.

You'll also find tostadas with ceviche, pozole and menudo on weekends, and seafood "cocktels."

The only real no-no I've encountered is a cheese dip that tasted like thin sour milk.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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