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Soup superior

Dai Loi is spooning out slurp-worthy bowlfulls of Vietnamese vittles

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Jonesboro Road flea markets and dog shows, not to mention periodic trips to Hartsfield Airport, FedEx and UPS, alert me to new lunch spots on the Southside. Anything not involving funnel cakes, bagged chips and caterers' trailers is fare game.Dai Loi, a spiffy Vietnamese soup shop two blocks below I-285 (and thus one long block from Expo Center South), is a world away from pepper-soaked pork skins and zapped franks. Pastel-clean and neon-bright, with plate-glass windows and tables neatly lined up row on row, the restaurant is easy to find (there's a large sign out front) and easy to navigate once inside.

A visual standout in a modest Asian-Mexican neighborhood, Dai Loi (when I was there, anyway) draws customers from the Viet community and the nearby U.S. Army base. Menus are extensive and dishes usefully described. English-speaking staffers lay out the details and move fast.

Traditional starters -- cha gio (spring rolls) and goi cuon (shrimp and basil rolls) are as tasty and well prepared as might be found on Buford Highway. Tightly packed and lightly fried, the spring rolls are crisp and greaseless. Dai Loi's fresh summer rolls, their uncooked cousins, almost burst with aromatic greenery, shrimp and rice vermicelli and are served with hoisin sauce topped with crushed peanuts.

Pho, Vietnam's meal-in-a-bowl gift to the world, is stocked in a dozen beefy variations. Besides the requisite rice vermicelli, sliced onions and cilantro, additions can include brisket, flank steak, tendon, tripe and meatballs, alone or in various combinations. Hot pepper sauce, soy sauce and a plate of garnishes -- herbs, sprouts, jalapeño peppers and lemon wedges -- are provided for individual spicing and flavoring. Dai Loi's beef broth itself is full flavored yet soft-edged, neither salty nor bland, an excellent medium for the Asian cornucopia of ingredients. The noodles, beef and herbs are usually eaten with chopsticks; forks are provided for the chopstick-impaired. Broth is sipped, and liquid seasonings measured out, using the plastic spoons stacked in a rack on the table.

Beef stew with French bread, a Eurasian variant on pho, contains mouth-size hunks of meat (some with tasty fat and sinew adhering), carrots and onions in an even richer broth. Pieces of the warm mini-baguette may be dipped into the soup, eaten dry or wrapped around morsels of beef. Sopping up the last of the soup with a few spoonfuls of steamed rice makes a satisfying conclusion as well.

Bun, noodle dishes seasoned with spicy nuoc cham dressing, are less enticing than typical Chambodian examples. While the rice vermicelli and green salad components are fine, the pork and shrimp toppers are somewhat mushy, not crisp and dry -- as they would presumably be if properly charcoal-grilled. Topping one's bowl of noodles with sliced spring rolls, bun cha gio, may be a better choice.

Boneless, marinated grilled chicken on rice with salad is a healthful, Americanized blue plate choice. Pork, beef, fish, shrimp and so on are similarly served.

Alcohol is not offered. Jet fuel of another sort, Vietnamese iced coffee, café sua da, is dark, rich espresso that's properly dripped into sweetened condensed milk, then poured over ice cubes. Shakes -- from jackfruit to fresh strawberry -- can stand in as either a beverage or dessert.

It would be difficult to spend more than $10 per person at Dai Loi. It would be hard to go away hungry. We seemed to stuff ourselves both times we lunched there. And yet, an hour and two hours later, there was that light, pleasant sense of having eaten wisely and well.

Which is more than can usually be said about flea market meals of Polish dogs, onion strings, popcorn and cola.

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