Pho Dai Loi 2 at 4186 Buford Highway in Atlanta provided my dad’s first foray into Vietnamese cuisine, and this was an interesting journey indeed. The menu is simple enough with one page of soups, one page of rice based dishes and another with the noodle varieties. I just couldn’t get my dad to commit to any one of these three basic Vietnamese food groups let alone a meal as the waiter made three passes by our table in an attempt to finally secure some sort of order on his pad of paper.
Out of exasperation I finally just selected bún thịt nướng grilled beef noodles for my dad, a phở bò with brisket and flank steak for me, and an appetizer of goi cuon rolls to share. While we waited for his maiden voyage into Vietnamese cuisine to arrive, he asked what each basic condiment on the table was. Let’s see….hot sauce, soy sauce and toothpicks. Same stuff as at a Chinese joint. Lesson over. Let’s eat.
So have you ever witnessed the uninitiated smelling fish sauce for the first time? My dad’s face contorted as he asked, “What is this crap?” I explained this “crap,” as he so eloquently describes nước chấm, is fish sauce based but with other ingredients such as sugar mixed in to temper the strength of pure fermented liquid. He didn’t seem all too pleased, so I sampled it as well. I wondered how in the world can a Vietnamese restaurant dork up such a basic condiment? This would be akin to Burger King or McDonald’s screwing up ketchup in Poland or Mexico.
Adding some sugar and lime brought the mixture up to a bit more palatable standard yet still far from the properly sweet-spicy nectar flowing so tastily in Saigon. I warned my dad to go easy on the salty sauce, so what does he do? He dumps the whole bowl into the noodle dish. He observed nước chấm tastes somewhat better on actual food, and judging by how much of the bún thịt nướng he ate, either he was starving or lunch really was passable. I am guessing the former.
The lime wedges, Thai basil and coriander did add a small layer of authenticity to my beef soup, and overall it was passable by Atlanta standards once I dumped in hoisin sauce and a few jalapeno peppers. Yes, jalapeno peppers…the same very Mexican friend we use to enhance nachos and burritos. I even saw the proper red birdseye peppers only a day before at a Vietnamese supermarket, yet this place uses a substitute more at home in Tijuana. Go figure.
My dad asked me how much this entire meal would cost in Vietnam, and I estimated maybe $3.00 at my neighborhood street food joints. We paid about $20 here. I have no idea if my dad will venture into Vietnamese food again for fish sauce can prove a formidable taste assault during one’s first dip into a menu full of new choices. All I know is my return next week to some real Vietnamese cooking in Saigon cannot come soon enough.