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Ethnic.City: Nam Phuong

Vietnamese food at its finest on Buford Highway

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I've never really understood how Vietnamese could be anyone's favorite Asian cuisine. Sure, I always loved the standards — cha gio (fried spring rolls), bun, pho and green papaya salad — but, given the choice, I'd rather eat Korean or Japanese. That all changed the minute I experienced the expertly prepared wonders featured on Nam Phuong's enormous 12-page menu. Beyond the nuoc cham (fish sauce-based dipping sauce), are more specialties and textures than I could have imagined. The only downside was the Norcross location, so you can imagine my recent excitement when I learned that another Nam Phuong was opening on Buford Highway.

After several stalkerish drive-bys, I found that the second Nam Phuong Restaurant (4051 Buford Highway, 404-633-2400. www.namphuongatlanta.com) had opened just across the street from Fiesta Plaza, smack-dab in the middle of Buford Highway's unofficial Little Vietnam. The new, impeccably clean location greets you with a shiny new sign, leather-bound menus, and servers who operate with the same sense of professionalism and pride as the original — the mark of owners Tieng and David Nguyen's extreme attention to detail.

And I'm happy to report that the food is even better here. After years of many sad cha gio, I've finally found a version worthy of the indulgence. Instead of being tough and greasy, these spring rolls are light and flaky with juicy ground-pork interiors. Within the menu's "street food" section are specialties not often found in our many pho parlors, including immense crepes (banh xeo) made with rice flour, water and turmeric powder, then fried and filled with shrimp, slices of roast pork and mounds of bean sprouts. The dish is served with a mountain of lettuce and various fresh herbs to wrap around bits of crepe before dipping them in the fermented soybean sauce. The bot chien is one of the more interesting dishes in terms of texture. The kitchen fries cubes of rice cake in oil until crisp and covers them in an egg "batter" and green onions. The dish resembles a frittata. Drizzle a bit of the sauce on top to bring it together. Any salad is a win, but the sour and crunchy lotus root salad that you eat with puffed rice scoops is a perfect summer lunch. The cha tom (shrimp mousse cooked on sugarcane) is a tender and perfect centerpiece among the herbs and cooked rice vermicelli squares wrapped in the do-it-yourself rice paper rolls (soak the paper first in the bowl of water).

Massive platters of broken rice, bowls of beef stew with French bread and tons of other main dishes abound, including a respectable selection of Vegetarian choices. A few soups stand out among the numerous offerings. Lovers of rice porridge will marvel at the chao ga (chicken congee) flavored with an intense chicken stock and filled with a generous amount of shredded white chicken and fresh ginger. Nam Phuong advertises they serve more than pho, but its version is respectable with hints of anise and deep beef flavor. Another soup worth a taste is the mi tom thit, with its clearer broth sweetened by caramelized shallots and, instead of rice noodles, crinkly egg noodles.

Nam Phuong features an expansive drink menu. Try the cool and fizzy soda chanh, fresh lemon juice sweetened with sugar and made sparkly with soda water. Or, if you crave creamy, cool and eye-opening, order the cafe sua da, strong espresso-like coffee mixed with condensed milk and poured over ice. There are also several fresh juices — including sugar cane — and bubble teas with tapioca pearls for a sweet end to an always refreshing and soothing meal.

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