I love Vietnamese food and my life hasn't been the same since Bien Thuy changed hands about four years ago and became a coffee shop. The original owner, Suzanne Bojtchewky, moved back to Vietnam and with her went the city's most complex Viet cooking. Suzanne authored a couple of cookbooks and was always up for preparing off-the-menu specials.
Since Suzanne left, a few high-quality Vietnamese restaurants have opened to fill the gap – principally Nam in Midtown and Com on Buford Highway, where there are also pho shops and other less ambitious restaurants.
I recently learned of the opening of Mint's Grill (6330 Lawrenceville Highway, Tucker, 770-414-3999). This interested me in part because I knew it was opened by the same people who operate Lee's Bakery next to Com. Lee's sells the city's best banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwiches stuffed with pickled vegetables and pork or cold cuts. (Try the one featuring pate.) I also like the pastries and soups there.
So we jumped into the car Sunday night and headed to Tucker, only getting lost twice and only stopping a couple times to ogle bizarre roadside attractions, including a church big enough to house the entire departing population of the Rapture. You don't have to drive far outside our city to get to Jesusland.
We found Mint's in a little shopping center. It's a pleasant, nondescript space with an effusive and charming owner. We asked her why they had opened a Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of nowhere. "Because it is nowhere," she said. "There is nothing else here." OK, although there are a few Vietnamese places not too far away on Jimmy Carter Boulevard.
I'm not sure the restaurant merits burning up a couple gallons of gas to drive there from Midtown, but we did have a mainly good meal, with a few confusing features.
The menu is not lengthy. It includes appetizers, noodle soups, bun (rice vermicelli) bowls and rice dishes. There are also three banh mi. My favorite dish was an appetizer – a crispy egg-flour crepe filled with shrimp and pork, along with caramelized onions and bean sprouts. You tear off pieces of the large crepe and wrap them in lettuce with herbs and dunk them in a lime-chili sauce.
We also ordered the "special salad" full of sliced lotus roots, carrots, radishes, pork and shrimp. This dish will draw inevitable comparisons with the salad at Com. While we liked it, it included faint tastes of an herb we long ago nicknamed "death in your mouth." I have no idea what it is, but it imparts a flavor that I've never acquired a taste for. Fortunately, it was subdued enough that an extra shot of fish sauce almost drowned it out.
Entrees furnished the somewhat disconcerting surprises. I ordered sautéed beef chunks, which were served with egg-fried rice. "I don't remember ever eating egg fried rice with a Vietnamese meal," I said to the owner, as I ordered.
She said it was usual with this particular dish. I was wary but when she set the plate before me, I forgot about the rice. I realized it was the "shaken beef" that's so popular at Nam. Here, it's made with beef tenderloin instead of filet mignon, but it's nearly as good, much cheaper and is served with the same little bowl of ground pepper and salt into which you squeeze lime. You use this to season the rare, briefly marinated beef. Everything, including the rice, was delicious.
I found Wayne's dish completely disorienting. He ordered rice vermicelli (bun) with lemongrass chicken and the usual array of mixed raw vegetables. The dish had an overwhelming taste of soy sauce to me. Again, I asked the owner if that wasn't unusual. She explained that the lemongrass seasoning includes oyster sauce, which in turn includes soy. OK, but I found the flavor of the soy overwhelming. Wayne, who designed his own lemongrass chicken dish at Bien Thuy, was completely happy with it, though.
We also bought four croissants, which were nice for breakfast the next morning.
Coffee and bad tech
Jenny writes to ask, as someone does every other week, where the best cup of coffee is in our city. I still think it's at either location of Aurora and I'm including drip coffee as well as espresso. However, I think Octane in west Atlanta does nearly as good a job. For home, I still prefer Lavazza's espresso. It's much cheaper than the celebrated Illy, and has a more complex flavor ...
Speaking of coffee, Starbucks has finally instituted its long-promised free wireless Internet service. It's provided by AT&T and the hitch is that you have to put some money on a Starbucks "gift card." It's not much of a hitch, since the card costs nothing and is a convenient way of paying. (It's not so convenient for the baristas because it provides no means of tipping.) The card permits you two hours of free service a day. You can load up more cards if you need more time.
Meanwhile, unlimited service is still available there from T-Mobile for $29 a month.
Of course, there is another hitch – at least at the Ansley Starbucks. The system works like crap, going on and off once again, as it did for months earlier this year. Neither the AT&T nor T-Mobile service works consistently. If one drops, they both do.
Amazingly, there seems to be no easy way for Starbucks to repair such problems. No matter who you talk to – at AT&T, T-Mobile or Starbucks – nobody knows anything. Meet me at Octane ...
Good news for East Atlanta and Grant Park! Spoon, the terrific Thai restaurant in the Westside on Marietta Street, is opening a second location on Moreland Avenue, in the space vacated by Salsa Havana.
Please check out our dining blog, Omnivore Atlanta, at www.omnivoreatl.com for all kinds of food news and commentary.