Grazing: First look at 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.”

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(Photo by Cliff Bostock)