Atlanta has become obsessed with Vietnamese food. It started well over five years ago with diners stampeding Buford Highway in search of the best pho, the classic soup of beef broth, noodles, herbs, and meats. The pho flood introduced people to broader Vietnamese menus and now we are seeing new restaurants popping up everywhere. One of the latest is Vietvana Pho Noodle House in Avondale Estates.
You get the name, right? It’s supposed to be the nirvana of Vietnamese cooking. Pho is the bait, but the menu is much broader. In some ways, the new restaurant reminds me of Food Terminal on Buford Highway. It’s a gigantic minimalist space of nearly 5,000 sq. ft. with a startlingly large open kitchen and a small bar. The main dining room’s tables are slick, natural wood-backed with a banquette. The room is split down the middle by an endless community table.
The restaurant is owned by Vietnamese-born Chef Dinh Tran and his wife Khanh Dang. They also own the two-year-old Khanh Vietnamese Pho & Sandwich in Duluth. Considering the enormous scale of this newly opened operation, it’s not surprising that we encountered some kinks. We arrived around 8pm on a Sunday and were told we’d need to wait 30 minutes, even though the restaurant was half-empty. Six other people – two very annoyed – were ahead of us. Y’all need to calm down, I thought!
The menu, of course, emphasizes pho with house-made rice noodles and broth. You can “build your own” pho with a beef, chicken, or vegetable broth, adding meats, ranging from filet mignon to tripe. Vietvana’s broths are pleasantly and intentionally light, complementing rather than overtaking other flavors. We ordered a bowl from the specialty menu – the beef broth with a fat, juicy soft shell crab cut in half. White and green onions, plus cilantro, floated in the bowl. One annoying faux pas: No herbs were brought to the table to add to the bowl.
I ordered my usual bowl of rice vermicelli with pork, three shrimp, and an egg roll. The pork was perfect, glazed and a bit crispy. The eggroll was average, but the shrimp were barely cooked. I’m talking gooey. Several of the promised ingredients – basil, chopped peanuts, and fried onions – were missing. Oddest of all, it was not served with fish sauce, which is always on every Vietnamese table. I, like another diner, had to get up from the table and ask for it. Once I got it, a few squirts of sriracha and hoisin sauce brought the rice noodles to full flavor.
We also tried the papaya salad with pork and (properly cooked) shrimp, much of which we piled onto shrimp crisps. I’d like more mint in the salad, but it worked. I did order one appetizer I’ve never tried before, steamed rice cakes. It looked almost surreal: seven little containers of chewy white paste topped with dried shrimp, scallion oil, fried onion, and crispy croutons. The flavor was a bit piquantly fishy for my taste, but my tablemate loved scooping the little cakes into bite-sized tacos.
The other Vietnamese dish that has become wildly popular is banh mi – the sandwiches made with rice-flour baguettes inspired by the French, who occupied Vietnam for 70 years. Vietvana offers 15 different versions, almost all of them under $6. The bread is house-made. I ordered one to go that I sampled in the middle of the night. It contained paté, ham, roasted pork, and dried shredded pork with pickled veggies and fresh jalapenos. A few bites were delicious to me, but if you don’t like funky flavors, you may want to skip the pate.
I have little doubt that Vietvana will fix its glitches. The house-made noodles and bread alone make the restaurant worth visiting soon. And you can go anytime: it’s open 11 am-midnight every night except Sunday when it closes at 11pm.
2831 E. College Ave., Avondale Estates