It was beginning to look like another after-work dinner in a forlorn shopping-center restaurant — until the food started to come out. A platter of smoky grilled meats and crispy fried tofu threaded on skewers and showered with crushed peanuts, scallions and fried onions. A cooling green-papaya salad with slivers of tender shrimp and crunchy shrimp crackers. A set of delectably crispy chicken wings in sweet-hot chile sauce.
We sipped our milk teas and got so lost in the pleasure of devouring our appetizers that we almost forgot to order our entrees. Yes, our bodies were still in Atlanta. But our palates had been transported to a Vietnamese nirvana.
Make that Vietvana.
Since opening in August, Vietvana Pho Noodle House in Avondale Estates has generated excitement in the local dining community, for at least a couple of reasons. Though a pho parlor in name, Vietvana, from the husband-and-wife team of Dinh Tran and Khanh Dang, offers a full compendium of Vietnamese specialties outside the realm of noodles and banh mi sandwiches. Another plus: It’s housed in a crisp and inviting contemporary space that’s a bit of an upgrade from some of the town’s shop-worn pho joints. Gone are the steam tables from previous occupant Our Way Cafe, the trusty College Avenue meat-and-three that closed in 2018 after 30 years on the scene.
My love affair with Vietvana began in September when I stopped by to do some research for the AJC’s fall Dining Guide, which as you may recall was all about noodles. I wanted to try the bun, the Vietnamese rice vermicelli that’s a neutral canvas for the standard accompaniments (pickled carrots and daikon, fresh cucumber, fish sauce) and whatever protein you opt for (maybe lemongrass chicken or beef, barbecue pork or grilled shrimp). I got the bun with bo la lot: a sausage-like blend of beef and pork rolled cigar style in betel leaves, then grilled to a char. Paired with a bottle of Saigon beer and an order of Vietvana’s crispy egg rolls (cha gio), it was a glorious find.
Thus began a series of eating adventures in which I consumed Vietnamese fried chicken; caramelized catfish in a clay pot; crispy lemongrass beef; rice cakes; spring rolls; a limey rare beef salad; banh mis; a grilled pork chop plate with broken rice; a splendid seafood soup with house-made rice tapioca noodles. There’s such variety here that the pho was last on my list.
Tran, whose family immigrated to the States when he was 2, has been trying to reclaim his lost cuisine for some years now. His first teacher and No. 1 influence was his mother, Tina Nguyen, now a regular presence in the Vietvana kitchen. Then, after a series of catering and restaurant endeavors, some successful, some not, he met Dang. “Everyone said my food tasted good, except my wife,” says the 32-year-old chef/restaurateur.
That really got his goat, so he starting taking regular trips to Vietnam to try to figure out what was missing. His big discovery: Vietnamese cooks often lack refrigeration, so they tend to buy only what they need for each day, then start fresh the next morning. With Vietvana, Tran is trying to emulate that approach, making noodles and bone broth from scratch.
For the most part, his aha moment seems to have paid off.
A baker’s dozen of banh mi sandwiches is made with crisp, bright ingredients (cucumber, jalapeno, cilantro, pickled carrots and daikon) and wonderful baguettes. More than half of them are priced at $4.50, which makes them a remarkable bargain, too. The top-of-the-line filet mignon version, at $8.95, was quite good. (I think it’s the aioli-like house mayo.) The $5.95 Vietvana, with pate, ham, roasted pork, meatball and barbecue pork, is a meat lover’s dream. You can also get a banh mi stuffed with spicy fried shrimp, tofu, fried egg, barbecue pork, lemongrass beef, and so on.
Among the appetizers, crispy egg rolls are a far better choice than the cold, uninspired, rice-paper-wrapped shrimp-and-pork spring rolls. I still dream about Vietvana’s wings, which remain utterly crisp even after the sauce. Hue-style rice cakes are perfect for a table of two or more to share. You get eight little custard-like cakes in individual dishes. The textural contrast of the toppings (dried shrimp, fried onions, crispy croutons, scallion oil) is what elevates the homespun concoction into something memorable.
Broken rice (com tam) plates are likewise dependable. I suggest you start with the special combination (dac biet); it comes with a gorgeous fried pork chop, spread out like a fan; quiche; grilled shrimp; a fried egg; and shredded pork (which, as per tradition, is a bit chewy and flavorless). Of the three rice plates we tried, the Saigon crispy lemongrass beef and caramelized catfish clay pot were solid. But the Vietnamese fried chicken (which is marinated for 24 hours with lemongrass and soy, then boiled in a pho-like broth, then fried for a few minutes) was more soggy than crisp, one of the few genuinely disappointing plates I sampled.
Under specialty soups, you may get a tomato-y beef and carrot stew with bread for dipping (bo kho); a tomato-based crab soup with rice noodle (bun rieu); and a spicy lemongrass beef soup (bun bo hue) with all kinds of pork and beef products, including pig’s feet and blood. I want to try them all.
For now, I can’t say enough good things about the banh canh cua, a heavenly, delicately nuanced seafood soup with supple house-made rice-tapioca noodles, delicious soft-shell crab, very tender pork and crab meatballs and other goodies (scallion, cilantro, fried onion). The broth derives its exquisite taste, and golden sheen, from a long simmer with seafood shells — a flavor that haunts me still.
I saved the pho for last, and chose the build-your-own option with beef broth, rare filet mignon, meatballs and a double order of fatty brisket. A bit over-salted with no hint of pink in the filet, it tasted just fine, but generally failed to impress. That said, there’s a whole gallery of pho here, pho built from beef, chicken and vegetarian stock, so I’m not ready to dismiss Vietvana’s namesake soup entirely. No doubt there’s nirvana in them thar bowls.
Vietvana Pho Noodle House
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: classic Vietnamese, with many dishes you don’t see at your typical pho house
Service: all over the place, from sweetly ministering to forgetful and barely there
Best dishes: Vietnamese wings, rice cakes, assorted skewers, banh mi Vietvana, banh mi with filet mignon, bun with grilled beef and pork in betel leaf, Saigon crispy lemongrass beef with rice, special combination broken rice, banh canh cua specialty soup, green milk tea, oolong milk tea
Vegetarian selections: sauteed garlic and chile bok choy, salt and pepper tofu, lemongrass tofu with pepper, tofu and veggie clay pot, lemongrass tofu with bun, build-your-own pho (with vegetarian broth, tofu and veggies)
Price range: $$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. every day
Parking: free in parking lot
MARTA station: Avondale
Reservations: yes, for parties of two or more
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: moderate
Address, phone: 2831 E. College Ave., Avondale Estates. 404-963-2757
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