- By Wendell Brock For the AJC
In the early 2000s, I spent a few years living in a high-rise condominium near 10th and Peachtree. The view from the 18th floor was magnificent, but the dining options down below were still evolving.
Had I been able to stop by a place like Anh’s Kitchen for crispy fried spring rolls and a dependable bowl of noodle soup, the world would have seemed a little brighter somehow. The latest venture from MF Sushi’s Alex Kinjo, Anh’s is a sunny yellow room where many Vietnamese staples familiar to American audiences are freshly prepared in a casual, full-service atmosphere.
Sure, you can get better Vietnamese at other spots around the city. (I’m thinking of Buford Highway’s Pho Dai Loi on the low-budget end; Guy Wong’s elegant Le Fat on Marietta Street on the higher side.) But Anh’s straightforward, efficient vibe feels just right in the hustle-and-bustle of this urban corridor. At this Viewpoint condominium newcomer, office workers, Midtown residents and tourists can all come together to chomp banh mi and twirl bun cha (rice vermicelli).
Anh’s may not be fancy, but it gets the job done.
The space has the look of a place decorated on the cheap: blue metal chairs, shiny wooden four-tops, travel-poster photos in white frames. Empty Cafe du Monde coffee canisters are recycled as tabletop caddies filled with paper napkins, plastic chopsticks, stainless dinner forks and spoons.
To be honest, I had a rather mixed response to my first visit, a Saturday lunch with a couple of friends from out of town. (Appetizers were good, but entrees needed some finesse.) Stopping by later, however, for a couple of solo dinners in the secluded pocket space behind the main dining room, I had a more considered and thoughtful experience: time to sip hot jasmine tea and take in the details.
If you love crunchy, deep-fried spring rolls and cool rice-paper rolls packed with fresh clean flavors, you’ll dig Anh’s.
Crispy imperial rolls, stuffed with garlicky ground pork and veggies, were delicious with just a dip of nuoc mam (the classic sweet-tangy, fish-sauce condiment). Rolled in gauzy rice paper, the “fresh shrimp & BBQ pork” rolls bulged with vermicelli, lettuce, herbs, nicely seasoned pork and perfect pink crustaceans peeking through the skin. Sliced into four pieces, they were just the thing for dragging through the chunky peanut sauce.
The grilled pork sausage roll may have been my favorite, though the meat wasn’t grilled at all. Rather, it was steamed, sliced thin, and wrapped up with chives, mint, bean sprouts and crispy little shards of what appeared to be fried spring-roll wrappers — a surprising textural contrast.
Fish-sauce chicken wings appealed in a sweet, salty, onion-y kind of way. But I’d skip those in favor of the lotus root salad.
Though you might expect the celery-like lotus stems to be the crunchy star of this dish, it’s really a toss of pickled carrots, daikon, mint and shredded chicken (not pork, as specified on the menu), garnished with crushed peanuts and a quartet of grilled shrimp. Not something you see at Vietnamese diners around town that often — and very tasty.
You can get pho all the ways here.
My “combo” version — with rare beef, brisket and meatballs — was good not great. The beef was fully cooked by the time it arrived. The broth was fine yet lacked the glistening, beef-fat sheen of a stellar soup. But once doctored up with hoisin, Sriracha, sprouts, basil sprigs and sliced jalapeno, it was a hearty, cold-weather antidote. (I should add that the pho garnishes here look quite measly compared to the whopping platters sent out at most authentic pho parlors I know.)
A vermicelli bowl with grilled shrimp, pork and egg roll was fairly standard issue. Ditto the uninspired cellophane noodles with crab and the lackluster lemon grass tofu. (The latter made me long for the custardy pillows of the late Chateau Saigon.) Clay pot chicken sang with comforting caramel tones and a jarringly pungent note of salt. With a bite of rice, I liked it nonetheless.
The real showstopper for me was the shaking beef: tender cubes of filet smothered in sweet brown soy with scads of red onion, piled onto a bed of fresh watercress and served with a side of pure white rice. What made the dish was the extra-tart side sauce of white onion and lime. A spoonful of plain rice, a dollop of beef, a drizzle of the perky condiment and I’m the one who’s shaking.
While I won’t go out of my way for Anh’s pho and rice noodle salads, there were a few dishes I’d return for.
Kinjo is a restaurateur who thinks like an entrepreneur. Figure out what the community is missing. Find the right location. And the people will come. For many Midtown dwellers, Anh’s Kitchen will likely be an answer to a prayer.