Ethnic City - So Ba Vietnamese Restaurant
Wasabi owner brings his native cuisine to East Atlanta Village
Late one night a couple of years ago, Wasabi owner Nhan Le poured sake for a group of lingering regulars. The Castleberry Hill sushi bar owner was in a talkative mood, and the conversation turned to dreams. Le explained that his ambition was to open an intown place where he could cook his native Vietnamese cuisine. Le wasn't interested in anything fancy or hyperauthentic – just a small place serving pho and a handful of other dishes.
That dream is now a reality. When So Ba (560 Gresham Ave. 404-627-9911. soba-eav.com) opened, many East Atlanta Villagers made it an instant regular hangout, just as Castleberry Hill residents had embraced Wasabi.
The space is divided into three parts: an outside area with metal ceilings, a bar area with seating, and a main dining room with tables. The décor is sparse, but it's filled with people on most nights, including many families with small children. And Le's music selection – think New Order, Cure and Outkast – adds a casual, nostalgic vibe where sneakers and jeans are more than welcome.
The menu is a simple mix of rolls, salads, pho, bun, broken rice and other dishes. Start with Cha Gio, crunchy fried rice-paper egg rolls filled with ground pork, vermicelli noodles and vegetables, and served with slightly sweet dipping sauce made with fish sauce. Goi Cuon (spring rolls) arrive deftly rolled and filled with caramelized grilled pork, steamed shrimp, lettuce, vermicelli and herbs. The accompanying peanut sauce adds heft to an otherwise light dish. Avoid the fried soft tofu, which has the tendency to be oil-logged.
Pho – Vietnamese noodle soup – is offered in three sizes. The beef dishes – such as the Pho Tai, Chin, Sach (eye-round steak, well-done brisket and tripe) – swim in a oil-free beef broth tinged with all the expected hints of star anise, ginger and other traditional spices. Pho aficionados may pick it apart, but it's tasty and soothing. What's not to like? The Pho Tom has an even clearer broth hinting of lemon grass and dotted with plump shrimp. The ever-present fresh herbs, chili paste and other accompaniments are close by should you want to alter the dish to your taste.
Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio is a filling and refreshing dish perfect for days when the weather is a little too warm for soup. A large bowl of shredded lettuce, vermicelli, cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon, ground peanuts, grilled pork and herbs are served with a fish sauce-based dressing that you drizzle over the contents before mixing. One of the best dishes, the Com Dac Biet, is a swine-lover's dream. A mound of broken jasmine rice is topped with a sunny-side up egg that shares the plate with a steamed omelet, shredded pork and a grilled pork chop heady with sweetish soy marinade.
One of the loveliest aspects of Vietnamese cuisine is the abundance of mint, basil, and other herbs provided with many of the dishes. The kitchen at So Ba could stand to ramp up its use of these aromatics – the skimpy use of herbs detracts from much of the food. That's an easy fix, though.
The shelves of the bar are still barren thanks to the City of Atlanta's notoriously long wait for a license. So bring your own if you'd like a drink with your meal. However, the wait for booze will be worth it if Wasabi's fun menu of cocktails, beers and sake is any indication of what's to come.
Are there deeper, better developed pho broths on Buford Highway? Yes. But So Ba isn't trying to compete with places like Dai Loi. It's a neighborhood restaurant with an American edge that feels like an extension of its owner's hospitable and laid-back personality.