I was raised on Vietnamese food. A former refugee man ran a small hole in the wall restaurant up the street from my house with his family. It was a simple place. A white tablecloth and pay up front kind of place. There was a small Buddhist shrine by the front door and a constant humming noise in the background from an old ice cream freezer that they had converted into a drink cooler. If you were around long enough you’d see the owner’s twenty-something son slip out the side door to smoke cigarettes– but never in front of the restaurant. He’d walk across the street and pace around on the grimy sidewalk in front of the Pizza Hut. Nobody cared about the Pizza Hut.
In spite of all its shortcomings, though, I couldn’t have wished for anything different. If things were slow– and they often were when we’d come by after school– the owner would hang around and tell us stories about when he fled Vietnam and came to San Francisco after the war. He was a kind man with a wide smile and thinning hair– deliberate in his movements and careful with his words. There was a certain sense of wisdom apparent in his demeanor, but not in that stereotypical mystical wise man from the east kind of way that somehow became so prevalent in American pop culture. No, this sense of wisdom came from a life of overcoming struggle. The horrors of war. Poverty. Racism. He’d seen it all. He’d faced it all. And somehow, against all odds, he’d become a damn good cook in the process.
To this day, there’s nothing better to me than Vietnamese food on a cool, overcast fall afternoon. Or an oppressively humid July evening. Or a balmy Spring day. Or midnight on a school night. I guess it’s pretty much always good. Everything that normally makes broths and soups and vegetables boring is thrown out the window with Vietnamese food. It’s different and exciting and flavorful. Fresh leafy greens are abundant. The most bland of vegetables become sexy. And yet at the same time, it’s as comforting as the embrace of a loved one. It’s a warm fleece blanket on a frigid Saturday morning. An oversized sweater on a windy evening. There’s nothing like it.
Influenced by the cuisines of neighboring Southeast Asian countries, China, and its colonial oppressor France, Vietnamese food is a reflection of the significant cultural and political turmoil felt throughout the country’s history. It’s about making use of every ingredient that you possibly can. It’s about balance. Hot and cold. Yin and Yang. Refining the raw in all the right ways and only the right ways and respecting what’s best left as it is.
But despite my love for the cuisine, I must admit that I haven’t had good Vietnamese food in over four years. I’ve been wandering in the desert. Lost. Deprived. Hungry.
Well, until I happened upon Nam Phuong.
Situated along Buford Highway, it’s a frequent recipient of all kinds of internet accolades related to good Atlanta food. But don’t be too intimidated. It’s not one of those places. You know what I’m talking about. Oddly charismatic waiters. Overly expensive dishes that you could make at home. Edgy patrons who look at you like you don’t belong. Ridiculous wait times. Meticulously modern decor. Rest assured Nam Phuong has none of that. I don’t think the word ‘artisanal’ has ever been uttered within its walls. And I’m pretty sure the owners don’t know what an avocado toast even is– let alone have they tried to sell one for eleven dollars.
Nam Phuong keeps things simple. It’s a minimal decor and pay up front kind of place. The menu is extensive. Prices are cheap. Good food is the focus.
And good food it was. Nam Phuong’s Hanoi style vermicelli is quite possibly the best I’ve ever had. Healthy portions of grilled pork and rice vermicelli noodles and fresh vegetables and fish sauce make for a dish that is greater than the sum of its parts– quite possibly beating out the Vietnamese food memories of my childhood. So good that I could’ve sworn that I was back in that old restaurant of my youth. So good that I forgot to participate in dinner conversation like a normal person. And when I was finished I found myself gazing off into the distance longing for more.
Although the vermicelli was the highlight of my night, I should also mention the Banh xeo and tofu spring rolls that served as a subtle yet worthy primer to the meal. Banh xeo is essentially a crispy Vietnamese crepe, turned yellow from tumeric, and stuffed with bean sprouts and shrimp and green onions. Unlike other spring rolls, the Vietnamese kind are not fried and are packed with an assortment of fresh vegetables and wrapped in rice paper. These ones also contained tofu. I can’t say that either of these dishes stood out especially but they served as an adequate complement to the meal as a whole.
Sure, you can probably find a place closer to home that will satiate your Vietnamese food needs– temporarily at least. And of course, what tastes great to me is ultimately subjective and my tastes are no more important than anyone else’s. But the point of these food reviews is less to spout criticism or praise that nobody cares about and more so to tell a story. To encourage readers to examine how food has impacted and interacted with the events of their own lives. A meal is often the premise of some of our most meaningful human interactions. And in a certain respect, food is reflective of an important part of the human experience– an essential part. It’s always been with us, and without it, there quite literally is no us. Good food transcends language and cultural barriers; political and religious disputes; and racial and ethnic divisions. Of course, good food is happy to speak for itself, but occasionally it needs to be interrupted. The context and implications of a meal can often be more important than the food itself.
But I should also reaffirm that after eating Vietnamese food, I just feel good. That can’t be overlooked. And in essence, I’m here to share that with you more than anything else. So if you’re looking not just for Vietnamese food, but Vietnamese food done exceptionally well, look no further. Nam Phuong won’t disappoint.