Pho Ga Tony Tony lurks in the back of a Norcross shopping center crowded with Vietnamese restaurants that serve crispy spring rolls, composed rice plates, cold noodle salads and, inevitably, bowls of beef pho, Vietnam’s world-famous noodle soup. You won’t see any of those staples on the simple menu of Pho Ga Tony Tony, however. What you will find is a few variations on a single dish, chicken pho (pho ga in Vietnamese). The concoction may sound simple, yet as served here, it is steeped in an oceanic amount of history, technique, flavor and integrity.
Chef Tony Le, one of the partners behind this new-to-Atlanta pho parlor, is the scion of Philadelphia’s Chuong Le and his chef-wife, Hoa Nguyen, proprietors of the legendary Cafe Pho Ga Thanh Thanh, considered to be the ne plus ultra of Vietnamese chicken noodle soup in America. Pittsburgh gave us Andy Warhol and his iconic Campbell Soup cans, Philadelphia the Liberty Bell, the cheesesteak, and the Le family’s masterful Vietnamese penicillin.
Working with partner Vinh Nguyen, Tony Le has set up shop in a bright contemporary space with sunny yellow accents; a wall full of neatly framed bird-related drawings and puns (“Guess What? Chicken Butt,” “Winner Winner Chicken Pho Lunch” in yellow and pink neon); and circular laminated menus. In Vietnam, it’s not unusual to encounter a portable sidewalk soup kitchen specializing in one dish only, and when a person’s livelihood depends on such a singular crowd-pleaser, the results are often extraordinary. Le and Nguyen apply street-hawker hustle to a modern context, and what bubbles up in the kitchen is nothing less than liquid magic.
At Tony Tony, the humble pho ga is actually a beautifully composed set of four components: a bowl of noodles in broth, a plate of poultry, a dipping sauce for the bird, and a tray of fresh or steamed bean sprouts, culantro, basil, sliced raw jalapenos and lime wedges. Purists may want to forgo the bird and inhale the heavenly perfume of the star-anise-scented soup. “I’ve actually done take-out containers of the broth alone and doled it out in little medicine cups to friends,” Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan gushed when I emailed him about the Pennsylvania mother ship. “It’s like the ultimate cure-all, with so many layers of flavor.”
I’ll slurp to that.
Still, to get a proper Tony Tony experience, I suggest starting with either the traditional thin, flat rice noodles or slippery, fat rice noodles — I didn’t really care for the dry, chewy texture of the thin egg noodles — and enough chicken to feed the table. (A quarter bird is perfect for one, a half just right for two, a whole one most likely enough for a party of three or four.)
How you go about eating the soup is a personal matter. There’s no correct way — every staffer I’ve quizzed has his or her own favorite regimen — and it’s OK to make a mess. You might want to shred the chicken into the soup (maybe ask for a fork), then pluck it out with your chopsticks and drag it ever so gently through the dipping sauce. (For me, dunking the bird in broth adds moisture and richness.) Or pull each bite of chicken off the bone as you go, swipe it in sauce, take a bite, and wash it down with soup.
One mistake you don’t want to make is to dump the dipping sauce into the bowl. This is not the ginger-spiked nuoc mam gung that’s the traditional accompaniment to pho ga but rather the Le family’s trademark amalgam of salt, lime juice, habanero, black pepper, and snippets of lime leaf. It awakens the senses and transforms the homey comfort of chicken soup into something complex and electrifying. (Though I didn’t get to try it, the mixed-giblet option comes with a ginger dipping sauce, available upon request.) Bottled hoisin, Sriracha and fish sauce are on the table for adding to the soup, but I don’t suggest knee-jerk squirts. This broth is so magnificently realized that it should not be adulterated.
If this sounds like an overly complicated ballet of chopsticks and chicken bones, the restaurant offers a fat-noodle soup with shredded white meat chicken. Those tender noods are my fave, and this soup is excellent. To drink, may I suggest the pennywort juice with fresh chunks of coconut, the passion fruit juice or the gently sweet coconut water? None of these beverages are made from scratch, but all of them taste fresh and delicious.
On the business end, Pho Ga Tony Tony is already growing, with a Duluth location expected by April. Don’t expect an expansive menu, though. (The original Philly shop doesn’t have a printed menu at all.) Le does plan to add chicken and rice to the Norcross lineup soon, but most likely you will never find banh mi or beef pho at this one-of-a-kind soup kitchen. For that, you have plenty of other options across the city — just drive into this shopping center parking lot and look around.
PHO GA TONY TONY
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: Vietnamese chicken noodle soup (pho ga) — and that’s it, though you can choose how you want your bird and your noods
Service: Sometimes lovely and ministering; other times forgetful, absent
Setting: A casual room with fresh, modern design in a suburban strip mall
Best dishes: Rice noodles. Fat rice noodles. Quarter dark meat chicken. Half chicken. Fat rice noodles with boneless white-meat chicken in bowl.
Vegetarian selections: None, except for pickled onions and scallion heads, meant for garnishing the soup
Price range: $$
Credit cards: all major credit cards accepted
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays
Parking: plenty in the free lot
MARTA station: no
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low
Address, phone: 5495 Jimmy Carter Blvd., Suite A2, Norcross. 678-691-0503
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