First look: So Ba

The authenticity dispute over Vietnamese in East Atlanta

Sometimes, an encounter with so-called authenticity is not so much fun. Consider, for example, the big bowl of soup I ordered during my third meal at So Ba (560 Gresham Ave., 404-627-9911), the new Vietnamese café in East Atlanta Village.

The soup is called bun bo hue and So Ba’s menu describes it simply as a “Hue-style spicy noodle soup with beef and pork.” Inquire about it and the server will be more specific. Besides thin slices of beef and rice noodles, the soup contains pig knuckles and fat cubes of congealed pig blood.

Most of the dishes I’ve sampled at So Ba have had an almost perfumed redolence, but this soup had that funky scent of offal. I only ate one cube of the blood — it wasn’t altogether unlike blood sausage — and jet-propelled the larger, gelatinous pig’s foot to Wayne’s tamer bowl of pho. He jet-propelled it back to the empty herb plate.

I ordered the dish after a phone conversation with Nhan Le, the new restaurant’s owner. I called him to discuss the bit of frenzy that erupted on Yelp and CL’s Omnivore blog over the restaurant’s authenticity.

“I grew up eating Vietnamese food,” Le said. (He was born in Vietnam but raised in California.) “I certainly know what’s authentic, as does the chef, Cuong Hyuh, who is cooking on days I’m not here. He’s worked in Vietnamese restaurants up and down Buford Highway. If I weren’t doing authentic food, why would I put bun bo hue on the menu? Nobody orders it, but it’s one of my childhood favorites and I’ve got to have it there.”

Le also owns Wasabi, a sushi bar in Castleberry Hill. “I got the same complaints about authenticity with Wasabi,” he told me. “In that case, yes, I’m not trying to do a purely authentic sushi bar. My sushi chef is a red-headed woman, just for starters.”

He also owned the short-lived White Elephant Thai in East Point. “They weren’t ready for Thai in downtown East Point,” he says. “But you can see why I don’t worry about authenticity. I’m concerned with what tastes good.”

And in my experience, So Ba’s food has mainly tasted good. The complaint about authenticity did surprise me, since I am a fanatical consumer of Vietnamese cooking. It’s true that So Ba’s menu is limited to favorites like pho and rice (com) and noodles (bun) topped with various meats and herbs. But it’s not inauthentic.

Buford Highway is lined with restaurants that specialize in pho, the soup that originated in North Vietnam. It is made with beef broth (although chicken broth is available), succulent rice noodles and meats that the diner chooses. That can be steak, brisket, beef tendon or tripe. All of these, plus chicken and shrimp, are available at So Ba (and the occasional mystery ingredient pops up, too). As at any Viet restaurant, the soup is served with a plate of bean sprouts, basil, hot peppers and limes for flavoring. Spike it further with Sriracha and hoisin sauces. What was I missing that made this inauthentic?

By way of comparison, I visited Nam (931 Monroe Drive, 404-541-9997), another intown, fancier Vietnamese restaurant, to sample the relatively new lunch menu. I’d heard the restaurant, which has received consistently rave reviews since its opening more than seven years ago, had begun serving pho and banh mi, the popular sandwich made with a crusty baguette.

Well, not so popular in Midtown, apparently. My server told me that the sandwiches didn’t sell and had been taken off the menu. “Were they too authentic?” I asked. “Something like that,” he replied. I turned my attention to the pho. The restaurant only offers two varieties (plus a lemongrass-chicken broth containing filet mignon, according to the menu). No tendon, no tripe. None of the occasional strange ingredients that surface in So Ba’s pho.

But my pho was good to the last drop. Should I get myself into a tizzy over the question of strict authenticity? The place is obviously designed to appeal to the American palate — the cuisine is called “nouvelle Vietnamese” — and it goes well beyond the street food that is prepared at most Buford Highway restaurants.

I’ve sampled two of So Ba’s dishes made with broken Jasmine rice, which is rice that gets literally broken during the milling process and cooks into something almost like couscous in texture. The first I tried was the rice with cubed, marinated filet mignon — lusciously tender. The second included a thin pork chop, shredded pork, a chunk of steamed omelet and a fried egg. Put a shot of Sriracha in the fish sauce, pour it over the dish and savor the roller coaster ride of flavors.

So Ba offers five bowls of dry noodles — bun dishes — with a variety of meats. I chose the most expensive ($10) with pieces of egg roll and grilled shrimp and pork. Bun dishes also include lettuce, cucumbers, pickled carrots, bean sprouts, daikon, crushed peanuts and herbs. You anoint this dish, too, with fish sauce and Sriracha. I eat bun at least once a week somewhere. So Ba’s is as good as any I’ve had anywhere in town.

I’ve tried most of the restaurant’s starters. The goi cuon  (summer rolls) have actually been kind of poorly rolled and I didn’t personally care for the version containing grilled pork. I much preferred the one predominated by shrimp. The cha goi (egg rolls) are standard. But my favorite starter is an off-the-menu dish that is a play on Chinese salt-and-pepper squid. The chef at So Ba uses fat cubes of tofu. Their salty, crispy exterior contains a creamy center. Grilled onions and hot peppers surround the tofu.

And, yeah, as far as I know, salt-and-pepper tofu is not a Vietnamese dish per se. The server told me it was definitely inspired by the Chinese squid dish. But I’m not going to stop eating it because it doesn’t seem “authentic” to me.

The restaurant is located in the building last occupied by Cantina La Casita. Le has pared it down to a minimalist look with an almost lime-green interior that is dimly lit. This is a building that always reminds me of those fish camps that used to open during the summer around lakes and rivers in the South. I’m not sure what could be done to improve it, and Le told me he underwent a political battle to get his hands on the location.

I’m glad to get another Vietnamese alternative in town. Oh, the restaurant has applied for a liquor license but for now it’s BYOB.

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