Buford Highway is littered with Vietnamese restaurants, pho parlors in particular. For a long time, Pho Dai Loi has been my favorite place to go for the widely loved soups and other standards, but the long-standing restaurant has been replaced in my dining rotation by a new-to-me contender: Quan Ba 9 (4285 Buford Highway, 404-636-2999). I first heard about Quan Ba 9 from an in-the-know friend who lamented that the hole-in-the-wall wasn't getting nearly enough love. That was all the convincing I needed to drag a group of friends there one Saturday morning.
The first thing you should know is that Quan Ba doesn't cater to Americans. There are no fusion dishes, the sweet and soft-spoken waiters speak little English, and there are no prices on the picture-heavy menu. If you can get past these small hurdles and the lackluster décor, you are in for the pinnacle of home-style Vietnamese.
Skip the Cha Gio (spring rolls); they're tough and have an interior that resembles minced hot dog and Spam. Start with a salad instead. We ordered three and were surprised at how distinctive each one tasted. In the Goi Xoai, julienned green mango so fresh it tasted like it was just picked dances with tough-as-jerky dried baby shrimp, coarsely chopped herbs and a drizzle of citrusy dressing hinting of fish sauce. The beef carpaccio or Bo Tai Chanh — a jumble of raw beef round tangled with shredded onions, slivers of lotus root and carrot, crushed peanuts and caramelized onions — comes predressed with fresh lime juice and a side of impossibly dark and funky sauce that miraculously mellows out once it's mixed in. A more substantial offering, the duck salad or Goi Vit, comes with chopped up, poached, bone-in duck placed atop a mix of multicolored shredded cabbage and the usual suspects: caramelized shallots and fresh herbs. A remarkable dressing of copious fresh ginger, chilis and fish sauce adds a lot of brightness and heat to the otherwise tame dish.
Salads also make an appearance with the main dishes. A small serving of Goi Ga (shredded chicken salad) arrives with a large bowl of Chao Ga (chicken porridge). The salad showcases the white and dark meat of the chicken used to make the intensely chicken-y broth that sets the stage for the oh-so-soothing porridge. Since the broth is so full of flavor, the porridge is dressed with nothing more than slippery mushrooms, dried shrimp, green onions and crispy shallots. It's comfort in a bowl. They also make duck (Vit) and innards (Long) versions.
Everyone's favorite Vietnamese soup, pho, has one of the cleanest broths I've tasted in years with a strong but not off-putting anise flavor and an undercurrent of sweet and spicy notes. A plate of impeccable dandelion greens, herbs, bean sprouts and a lone red chili pepper arrive with the dish. A dollop of the chili flakes in the red oil available at every table beats a squirt of Sriracha any time.
Quan Ba's signature dish — and the crowd favorite, judging by its presence on nearly every table — is the Mi Quang Ba 9, "a central Vietnam style flat noodle with chicken broth." An intensely red broth covers a mound of flat and wide rice noodles, pieces of chicken, and a hard-boiled egg. The soup is crowned with two sesame rice crisps and comes with a large plate of shredded chicken salad and another plate filled with shredded cabbage, chilies, and other odds and ends to add to your soup. It's the kind of soup you want when you are stuffed up and cranky with a cold or suffering a hangover, as was my friend who ordered it. He said it made him forget he was hungover at all. Now, that's one magic soup.