By now, many of you who read this blog have probably already heard about So Ba, a Vietnamese endeavor down in East Atlanta Village. The restaurant comes courtesy of Vietnamese national Nhan Le. Though Le grew up in California, it hasn’t stopped him from opening a bevy of Asian themed restaurants in various Atlanta neighborhoods.
In addition to the failed White Elephant Thai, Le’s also owns Wasabi Sushi Lounge, which has been rocking right along in Castleberry for some time. I’ve actually visited the latter several times and have always enjoyed myself (though the sushi can miss from time to time). Despite So Ba’s thematic departure from Wasabi, Le’s childhood gave me hope for decent grubbing. Open several months, I finally found the time to get on down to EAV when Mr. & Mrs. Mandy asked me to celebrate another lap completed. I swear to all things holy the dude looks the exact same as he did in college. Grovel! But we digress … let’s get on with things shall we?
Nestled in on Gresham Ave, So Ba occupies the spot vacated by La Casita Cantina. Though the free-standing building isn’t ideal for people watching at the intersection of Glenwood and Flat Shoals, it does provide you with ample parking opportunities. I can’t really comment on the interior too much since I basically did a bee line for the patio. There I found a lot of elbow room; despite it being a Saturday night, him and her were almost the only ones planted outside. Read into that what you want.
Drenched in an onslaught of online bickering, the restaurant has certainly seen its fair share of meme like attention. Most of that centers in and around the topic of authenticity … and it’s not a discussion I care to douse with lighter fluid on behalf of either perspective. What I will say is that So Ba’s competitive advantage is clearly their stranger in a strange land culinary offerings.
With pretty much all of the area’s Vietnamese restaurants entrenched in and around Buford Highway, So Ba brings Vietnamese food into uncharted territory. With a menu that includes Pho (pronounced fu as in “you know what” and aka Vietnamese rice noodle soup) and broken rice (just what it sounds like), there’s enough here to draw in the Hipstamatic artisans that seem to frequent the area.
The menu itself isn’t worth repeating … not because there’s anything wrong with it … but because you can just as easily look at it online. What I will say is this: Le and head chef Cuong Hyuh have done a good job of trimming down on the extensive options found at restaurants up yonder. It will make the ordering process easier for those Villager’s who aren’t familiar with the cuisine.
Seated and greeted, I slipped into the familiar tones of any such conversation between friends like this. While we chatted and caught up, our server came by to take our order, fill our water glasses, and inform us that despite their multiple months of operation … there was no alcohol to be sampled. Whose fault is that? Probably the cities, but still a bummer nonetheless. Keep in mind, this may have been rectified since my visit. You might want to call ahead to see if it is still BYOB.
And though our server butchered the name of nearly everything he attempted to describe, he was polite and friendly. Maybe a little off in the service, I was far more disappointed in his complete inability to differentiate the dishes to my compadres.
To interrupt the early part of our banter, we went with an order of the cha gio ($5 – egg rolls with ground pork) and goi cuon ($5 – spring rolls with shrimp, pork, & vermicelli). The former came with a sweetened fish sauce and the latter with peanut sauce. The cha gio were bland and the fish sauce tasted of weak ingredients and little flavor balancing. It was kind of gooey, almost syrupy. A total misfire. Meanwhile, the goi cuon with the peanut sauce did little right but nothing wrong. If you’re looking for wow in either of these, you might be hard pressed. If you’re looking for something that you’re used to from any run of the mill Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant … you’ll be just fine.
Chatting continued and as one glass of Chateau Chattahoochee turned into another, more food showed up on the table. For her there was a big bowl of bun ga nuong. For $8, she got rice vermicelli with grilled chicken, assorted vegetables, crushed p-nuts, and fish sauce. Bites of chicken were tear-iffic. Seriously, I think this was the reason the Ginsui was invented … of course, you couldn’t help but notice your mouth dry up as you ripped through the over cooked meat like a caveman on a rampage. The rest of the stuff helped out if included in a bite, but overall, this dish was flat and lacked good texture and/or flavor. Mr. Birthday Boy went with the com suon nuong xa (grilled pork chop) for $8. It was the same cut of meat as my com dac biet. For an extra dollar, I got to add on shredded pork, a steamed omelet, and a sunny side up egg – cuz let’s face it – egg makes everything better. Both plates had some vegetables to go with.
So the healthy stuff was fresh, but not so much that a trip to any one of the various farmers markets around town couldn’t produce a far better product. The proteins, as with the chicken, were somewhere between bland and over cooked. While the egg was bright and shiny, it was like it had been fried in a non-stick pan without the aid of butter, salt, or anything of the sort. Meanwhile, the shredded pork and omelet reeked of something that had sat around for too many hours before being served. I must stress that the food was not “stale,” but in that limbo of freshness joined with “oxidation.”
The real killer here was the pork chop. It was definitely seasoned, but the flavor had been cooked in so heavily that bites were nothing more than palm sugar mixed with rubber. I definitely got the lemongrass, and perhaps a hint of star anise, but I’ve seen pieces of bubble gum stretch less.
With a bevy of online support, I can only hope that my encounter with So Ba was nothing more than an anomaly. The price point is right on for the hood and it’s locale makes it a good meeting spot, but that is it as of now. I don’t see anything to lead me to believe that this is a gem with a little bit of dust. Instead, it just looks like a flop. I can assure you of one thing: were I not invested in the habit of going out and recapping my meals, I doubt I would return to said establishment after the experience I had there. At least my crappy Droid photos didn’t do the food a disservice!
Atlanta Foodies on So Ba
- Creative Loafing on So Ba (01.08.10)