If you are the kind of person who is easily distracted, you might want to face away from the back wall at Nam Phuong. There, projected images flash by in a never-ending slide show, from postcard scenery of Vietnamese countryside, to platters of glazed chicken and heaps of greenery, to rainbow-hued drinks served in milkshake glasses with paper umbrellas. There should be a sign at the door that reads “All guests with ADD must face south.”
Nam Phuong cuts a dashing figure that is rare in a city dominated by bare-bones pho (beef noodle soup) parlors. The dining room beckons in the grand manner of a Chinese banquet hall, ornate and glossy with an air of wealth. A water wall welcomes you at the front door with a shimmer of flowing energy. Walk past the well-stocked bar, where a magnum bottle of Johnnie Walker scotch posed in its own wooden cradle seems to say, “This is the good life.”
Opened by the mother-and-son team of Tieng and David Nguyen, Nam Phuong is already a sensation with Vietnamese diners, who pack it nightly. A growing crossover clientele comes as well, to explore the hundred-item-long menu and make new discoveries. I’ve found the salads to be revelatory, liked the soups and was indifferent to the stir-fried dishes.
You should by all means try one of the bun hoi dishes — a do-it-yourself summer roll assemblage with your choice of fillings. In fact, go for broke. Nam Phuong’s Ba Vi “Three Delights” ($23.95 for two, above, but could feed the cast of “Miss Saigon”) gives you the best taste of what this kitchen is up to. You get rounds of diaphanous, brittle rice sheets, a bowl of hot water to soften them in and gazillions of things to wrap inside. You moisten the wrap, lay it on your plate, then choose a delight from the three: shrimp mousse grilled on sugarcane, house-made pork sausage or a bundle of ground beef wrapped in grape leaves, then grilled.
Now turn your attention to the garnishes: mats of tender rice noodle with sauteed scallion, cuke spears, marinated carrots and daikon, lettuce leaves and Vietnamese herbs. The purplish tia to is perilla leaf, which has a cooling sweetness. Spade-shaped giap ca is called “fish mint” in English because of its weird, weird taste. There’s no shame in preferring the spearmint.
The waiter will help you assemble the first bundle burrito-style, and you will marvel at its self-adhesion. Then you will dip it, wolf it down and immediately want another. If you so much as wrinkle your nose at the pungent dip, a bowl of sweet peanut sauce will be at your side.
In fact, the service staff has been nothing short of great over three visits. I’ve gone claiming to be a newbie to Vietnamese food and I’ve gone showing off whatever I know. They read me right both times, and steered me to the right spot on the summer roll to congealed pork blood spectrum. Few restaurants with such unfamiliar menus are so welcoming.
If you don’t want to work for your dinner, try one of the other salads — all so fresh, lively, crunchy and zingy with ginger, lime and chile. Green papaya salad with shrimp and pork ($7.95, left) comes with crisp, superinflated shrimp crackers that snap, crackle and pop when you load them with salad and ginger dressing. A delicious mess. Chicken and cabbage salad ($8.95), so finely shredded and popping with slivered herbs, is like cole slaw applying for sainthood.
The sauteed dishes seem to come from a different kitchen, alas. Here, shaking beef ($9.95) is made with odd cuts of flank steak cooked to more than a quick sear. The version at Nam Vietnamese restaurant in Midtown melts in your mouth; this one works out your molars. Lemongrass chicken ($7.95) brings bouncy slices of white meat chicken and barely cooked bell pepper in an anodyne sauce, while squid with mustard greens ($8.95) seems like the kind of simple stir-fry that needs a quicker turn in the wok.
But the kitchen makes an excellent pho, with a dark broth that tingles with toasted cinnamon and star anise. The combination with pink rare steak, fat brisket, meatballs, flank, tendon and tripe ($7.50, above) is a textural symphony with a clean, pure flavor of beef. I do wish I hadn’t noticed that the coarse bumps along the strings of tripe reminded me of my cat’s tongue.
The restaurant has a serviceable list of beers and wine, as well as cocktails. But the non-alcoholic drinks are worth exploring. The lemon soda ($3) brings a sharp and frothy shaken citrus quencher. The salted lemon soda ($3) isn’t salty to taste but, rather, is made from mulled preserved lemons that taste a bit like Lemonhead candy. Truthfully, not my thing.
After three visits, I have a couple of not-my-things, a couple of amazing finds and a whole lot more to explore. Find me a more interesting Vietnamese restaurant in Atlanta.NAM PHUONG 5495 Jimmy Carter Blvd., Norcross, 770-409-8686 Food: Extensive Vietnamese menu Service: Excellent for newcomers and explorers alike. Price range: $$ Credit Cards: All major Hours of operation: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Best dishes: Ban hoi, green papaya salad, pho Vegetarian selections: Yes, but watch for fish sauce if you’re strict Children: Lots of them Parking: In lot Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate Patio: No Takeout: Yes