Nam Phuong is a good restaurant, and possibly an excellent one, but I’m certain that I did myself a disservice by lunching alone here. It’s been on my to-do list for quite a few months, just waiting for me to be in the mood to sample it. I figured that I needed to give it a try after reading Jennifer Zyman’s fascinating review of it. Zyman, who writes under the nom de blog The Blissful Glutton, is among this region’s best food writers, and one with a number of followers and fans. She could wax eloquent about a McDonald’s in Fairburn, and I’m pretty sure somebody would be trying to explain to his wife what the hell he’s doing stumbling home from south Fulton with Big Mac on his breath.
Anyway, I had not found reason to look around Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Norcross for simply ages, and I amused myself driving up and down. Once upon a time, a terrific store called Eat More Records was located here; they once bought quite a few bootleg CDs that I found myself possessing. It is a deeply ugly, sprawling mess of a road. I’ll never forget riding around with my good friends Dave, who now lives in Toronto, and Kevin, who now lives in Washington, spending miles of gridlock on that damn road trying to get back to I-85 and realizing, across fifty-eleven stupid jokes, just how very much like its namesake this road really is. “Jimmy Carter Boulevard means well,” Kevin said, “but it’s mostly ineffective in accomplishing its goals.”
In the early nineties, a good chunk of this corridor evolved into a Spanish-speaking neighborhood. Today, Asian families have started opening businesses and several strip malls are entirely Asian-owned, like a smaller version of much of the commerce along Buford Highway. There are still several Hispanic-focused businesses – one of the region’s two Pollo Campero restaurants is along here – but you can see the decline in the number that have shuttered. Perhaps most amusing is a former nightclub located right in front of the strip mall where Nam Phuong is found. It was called El Imperio, and its crumbling “castle” facade, with the front entrance built to look like guests entered through a dragon’s mouth, looks like something to excite eleven year-olds at a mini-golf.
This doesn’t look like a neighborhood where elegant, upscale dining can be found. Appearances are deceiving.
This is a really nice restaurant. Everything about it is classy and genuine. The servers were really nice and nothing felt artificial or phony. They did a great job making me feel welcome.
I had an order of bun chao tom, and that probably wasn’t what I wanted. It was ground shrimp with sugar cane served in a bowl over rice vermicelli with lettuce and carrots, sprinkled with crushed peanuts and with a small bowl of a fish sauce on the side. I never had sugar cane before, so I ordered this instead of the bun tau hu ki cuon tom, which is shrimp wrapped in bean curd. I’m certain that I would have enjoyed that more. Ordering sugar cane, I’ve since learned, is a polite way of eating scraps of wood in public.
I also had an appetizer order of bi cuon, which are shredded pork rolls. These do not come in those crispy, fried, golden brown shells that you see in all the sweet-n-sour Chinese places in the suburbs, but a slightly moist, white rice paper. These were quite tasty.
Everything was good, but I do think that I shot myself in the foot by trying this place by myself. Nam Phuong’s menu is huge, and jam packed with dishes that I’ve never heard of. My experience of Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese cooking is, sadly, still limited to the Golden-This-Happy-That school of red sweet-n-sour sauces. I’ve grown to loathe eating at those sorts of restaurants, and I just sing with the opportunity to try something so different and so interesting as this. While my meal was good, I would really like to return with a large group and sample many different things from everybody’s orders. Doesn’t that sound like a fun evening out?
Other blog posts about Nam Phuong: