Pho real: 5 Buford Highway spots where popular dish is authentic

Pho Dai Loi #2, which anchors the Little Saigon shopping mall, is known as one of Atlanta’s best pho restaurants. (Wyatt Williams)

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Pho Dai Loi #2, which anchors the Little Saigon shopping mall, is known as one of Atlanta’s best pho restaurants. (Wyatt Williams)

As Andrea Ngyuen notes in “The Pho Cookbook,” coming next year, “Pho is so elemental to Vietnamese culture that people talk about it in terms of romantic relationships. Rice is the dutiful wife you can rely on, we say. Pho is the flirty mistress you slip away to visit.”

By the terms of this lovely analogy, we shouldn’t rely on pho. It is too rich, too decadent, too much trouble for everyday life. Maybe so. But, over the past few decades, perhaps no other dish has been so familiar, so comforting, so reliable to the Atlantans dining along Buford Highway as pho.

At a glance, it might seem to be a simple bowl of soup and noodles, but the bewitching pleasure of pho comes from the complexity of the ingredients. A good pho has a steaming broth, rich with the aroma of anise and cinnamon, contrasting textures of rare beef tenderloin and gelatinous beef tendon, the crunchy touch of bean sprouts, the sharp note of paper-thin sliced onion, the herby depth of Thai basil and thorny coriander (culantro), and, of course, the thin, chewy rice noodles that give the dish its heft.

For the uninitiated, pho is ordered by the meats that accompany it. That can be as simple as pho tai, which is rare beef tenderloin, or as loaded up as pho dac biet, which includes a little of everything from tenderloin to brisket to tripe to tendon.

In either case, a bowl of steaming broth and a plate of fresh herbs and bean sprouts will arrive after you order. Tear off a few leaves of Thai basil and cilantro to season the dish. Maybe squeeze a touch of lime in there, too. I highly doubt anyone’s first bowl of pho will be their last.

The dish long ago spread across metro Atlanta, from Dua downtown to SoBa in East Atlanta Village, but there’s no greater concentration of pho than a 2-mile stretch along Buford Highway, where a number of restaurants have been serving the dish for decades.

Pho Dai Loi #2

Not long after opening a location in Forest Park in 1997, Pho Dai Loi expanded to this location on Buford Highway. Today, the restaurant anchors the Little Saigon shopping mall and, according to at least my own informal poll, tends to be known as the best pho in Atlanta. Why’s that? I’d say that it is the rich, aromatic but clear, clean broth. Of all the pho I’ve tasted, this broth exudes balance, just beefy enough, just lightly sweet with the aroma of spices. The friendly, blue-shirted staff serves bowls under a glowing chandelier that gives the otherwise casual room a fun, nice touch.

Pho Dai Loi #2, 4186 Buford Highway, Atlanta. 404-633-2111.

Quoc Huong

This small, cash-only joint in Asian Square is as casual as it gets. The window outside describes the menu as “Bahn Mi Fast Food.” Indeed, Quoc Huong’s reputation is largely for serving very good, very cheap bahn mi sandwiches. But, since opening in 1994, Quoc Huong also has served an excellent bowl of pho. (To put that in perspective, Quoc Huong has been serving pho in Atlanta almost exactly as long as Bacchanalia has been serving four-star meals.) An order of pho dac biet will come swimming with green scallions and quartered, chewy meatballs.

Quoc Huong, 5150 Buford Highway, Atlanta. 770-936-0605.

Pho 24

This chain is one of the newcomers to Buford Highway’s pho competition, which is to say it has been open only five years. The broth here is a little less distinctive than some of the others served along this road, but it is warm and satisfying and just rich enough. The important distinction is that Pho 24 stays open 24 hours a day, more or less. (Sometimes they shut down for a little while in the wee hours to clean up.) So, the people-watching at Pho 24 is some of the best on Buford Highway. The spacious booths tend to fill up with Chamblee’s night owls, teenagers on dates and restaurant workers looking for a little comfort after (or before) a long shift.

Pho 24, 4646 Buford Highway, Atlanta. 770-710-0178.

Pho Bac

Another of Atlanta’s longest-running pho restaurants, Pho Bac opened in this location in 1997 and hasn’t stopped since. The broth is lighter on the richness and stronger with the spices — the full, complex combination of anise, clove, cinnamon and maybe a hint of ginger can be detected in a single sip. The rare beef is good, but the best meat here is the brisket, which has been cooked into falling-apart strands of rich beefy goodness. The large room is lined with comfortable, cushioned red booths that are perfect for a long lunch. Order a pot of tea and take your time.

Pho Bac, 4897 Buford Highway, Atlanta. 770-986-4273.

I Luv Pho

Tucked into a building that seems to have undergone a number of mismatched renovations, the Buford Highway location of I Luv Pho, which is surprisingly not under the same ownership as other Atlanta area restaurants named I Luv Pho, specializes in an extraordinarily beefy, rich broth. The ingredients seem to be of a slightly higher quality, as well. The ribbons of beef tenderloin are cut ever so slightly thicker here than at other restaurants, and the beef tendon comes out perfectly gelatinous and rich. The dark, drawn shades make the room a perfect place to escape from the day for a quiet lunch.

I Luv Pho, 5145 Buford Highway, Atlanta. 770-696-1662,