At Nam Phuong (5495 Jimmy Carter Blvd., Norcross, 770-409-8686, www.namphuongatlanta.com), chef/owner Tieng Nguyen has created a decidedly more feminine feel and a greater breadth of offerings than found at its hole-in-the-wall competitors. The elegant dining room is flanked by a full bar. Amber sconces pepper the walls adding a soft, warm glow at night. Friendly servers buzz around at lightning speed. Most are well versed in the encyclopedic menu and are composed enough to lend a touch of formality to the dining experience.
Spring rolls and other standards abound on the appetizer menu, but the lotus, shrimp and pork salad tantalizes the senses with its contrasting textures flavors and sounds – yes, sounds. The acidic mix of shredded lotus root and perfectly cooked proteins is scooped and eaten with puffed circles of rice that snap, crackle and pop as you carefully transport them to your mouth. Another salad of sorts, the bo luc lac – or shaking beef – has juicy chunks of grilled beef and a slurry of salt and pepper sauce for drizzling or dipping, plus a tangle of crunchy watercress – a welcome change from the usual romaine lettuce you see elsewhere. You can make a meal out of either salad, but the menu holds too many other treats to stop there.
The Nam Phuong ba vi – or three delight – presents a breathtaking landscape of herbs surrounded by ground beef wrapped so tightly in grape leaves that it snaps on first bite; minced shrimp balls cooked on sugarcane and split; and strips of grilled pork balls resembling sausage in texture and flavor. Small flat squares of chewy rice vermicelli lay underneath the meats, shrimp and herbs. Rice paper sheets and a large bowl of hot water to soften them are available for wrapping. Soak a sheet in the water, then wrap the vermicelli, a "delight" of your choice and herbs into a loose spring roll. Dip into one of two sauces: the standard nuoc cham or a pleasantly pungent sauce described only as "very strong" by the waiters.
The pho is good, not great. There are plenty of other, more interesting soups for the taking (see sections seven and eight of the menu). Better yet, go for the beef stew, especially the one served with warm and crusty French bread. The sauce coating the tender pieces of fatty beef and carrots is thinner than you'll find in American stews, but evokes a masterful mix of Vietnamese flavors such as star anise and lemon grass. The catfish in a clay pot has the requisite earthy flavor minus the dirtiness that, at times, can render this fish overpowering and unpleasant. It is an overall delicate dish, cooked perfectly and enrobed in a thick sauce that tastes like soy-tinged caramel candy.
Vietnamese food is so much more than spring rolls and noodle soup. Nam Phuong offers an unusual breadth and quality – a delicious education for those wanting to delve deeper into this beguiling cuisine.