I was sitting alone at the Ba Bellies bar in Peachtree Corners when the shaking beef arrived. I knew it was too much. I’d already ordered a papaya salad laden with shrimp and a bowl of wontons dripping in an addictive, blackened sweet chili sauce. Both had paired nicely with a little goblet of Wild Heaven Peach Gose, a lightly sour, refreshing summer beer.
The bartender had raised her eyebrows when I’d ordered this string of three courses, playfully adding, “A little hungry today, are we?”
And now, here I was, with a plate of papaya salad big enough to share with three people, a wonton bowl that I’d inhaled while barely leaving a trace of the sauce (I’d resisted licking the bowl), and now a steak’s worth of beef tenderloin chopped into bite-size pieces dripping in bo luc lac sauce, surrounded by a bed of fresh, crunchy watercress and tomato wedges. The bartender smirked. What was I going to do with all of that beef?
Dear reader, I ate it all. From the first bite, a luscious, tender beefy wedge dripping with the sweet-salty flavors of soy and blackened sugar, I knew I would have no other choice.
Perhaps I should not be surprised. Brother-sister team David and Tina Nguyen are the children of Tieng Nguyen, the owner and chef of Nam Phuong, a long-running string of Vietnamese restaurants that stretches from Philadelphia down to two locations in Atlanta.
Along with Mike Yang, whose kitchen resume includes experience at New York City meccas Per Se and Craft, the three have hatched a restaurant that is self-consciously contemporary while still obviously in debt to the more traditional food that the elder Nguyen serves, including classics like shaking beef. When Tina mentioned in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Bob Townsend earlier this year that some customers prefer the Ba Bellies version of the dish, she added, “Don’t tell my mother.”
I’d like to tell her that Ba Bellies is a restaurant that should make any mother proud.
There is a youthful attitude in this menu, from silly entree names like Notorious P.I.G. to a beer list that would make any local craft brew geek happy. Most of all, there is that youthful disregard for the old boundaries. This is neither a Vietnamese restaurant nor an Asian fusion bistro nor a Southern gastropub, though it freely borrows from all of those styles. It reads like a few kids who grew up in the restaurant industry decided to cook whatever makes them happy.
You can see this in the short rib entree, slow-cooked for 24 hours and arranged on a bed of potato and parsnip puree, cubed and roasted root vegetables, radish slices and microgreens. The hunks of short rib are so tender that you don’t even need to think about a knife to enjoy their juicy strands. Like many of the dishes here, it is generously portioned and I found myself hooked on the addictive flavors of scallion ash and herbaceous chimichurri, returning for more bites long after I was full.
It was an excellent pairing with a pint of Wicked Weed’s Pernicious, an IPA with a complex, dry finish. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see this big, comfy plate of American meat and potatoes on the menu of the Wrecking Bar or the Porter.
Somehow, it fits right in with a menu of chicken wings with the heavy funk of fish sauce and palm sugar, a rather traditional Thai salad and a lightly smoky bowl of fried rice studded with bacon lardons. There are no strict rules of influence here, though most of the dishes seem to derive an ingredient or technique or style from the wide spectrum of Asian cuisines.
Not everything is brilliant. A “crispy” Brussels sprouts salad came out a touch too salty and not quite crisp enough. An ahi tuna poke appetizer seemed, like most of the trendy Hawaiian-influenced poke dishes all over menus today, to be a tired ’90s tuna tartare by another name.
The more than ample dining room can feel a little too open at times, like the boundaryless menu was extended to the interior design. It could use a few touches to break up the space.
But these are mainly nitpicking details. On the whole, Ba Bellies is a place that delivers the youthful pleasure that the menu promises.
I liked, especially, that the wait staff seemed to know the beer menu well. One night, a befuddled patron at the bar couldn’t find any familiar lager among the crafty offerings, but the bartender walked her through a few options, offering a taste of Emergency Drinking Beer before they settled on the right pint.
The papaya salad, listed as “spicy” on the menu, was predictably mild, but the kitchen was happy to make it right, sending out a ramekin of sambal studded with fresh chilies to amp it up.
That same patient approach might be a gateway for customers unfamiliar with the funky pleasure of fish sauce but well-acquainted with chicken wings.
On the other hand, they may be well-acquainted with the finer points of bo luc lac, but unaware of how well a Berliner Weisse-style beer goes with such a dish.
That’s the youthful pleasure of throwing out the old boundaries. You get to just have fun with it.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.