Tucked deep in the recesses of a squeaky-clean shopping center at the corner of Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and Pleasant Hill Road in Duluth, Chau's Vietnamese Grill is easy to overlook. We actually drove past it twice before finally spotting it. The restaurant's interior isn't much flashier than its unremarkable exterior, though the space is spotlessly clean and obviously brand new. Linen-topped tables are lined in neat rows. The walls are mostly bare, except for a giant plasma-screen TV, which was broadcasting NASCAR on a recent Sunday night.
Lazy Sunday: It was early, well before the dinner rush, and except for the TV the place was quiet. A young couple occupied a corner table, sharing a bowl of pho and poring over a Vietnamese-language newspaper. A Vietnamese family with two well-behaved little boys sat at the table next to us, the parents chatting idly and the boys slurping noodles while they stared raptly at the cars screaming past on the television.
Host With the Most: "You live around here?" our server asked, making small talk as he plunked down glasses of water. His eyes widened when I told him we'd driven 45 minutes to get there. "Wow, you drove all that way?" He was obviously impressed, and I can't remember the last time I had such attentive service -- he offered advice, checked in every few minutes, even brought an unsolicited free refill of iced coffee. I know "Waitron of the Week" is Cliff's, but I'm stealing it this week and giving it to this guy.
Nice Buns: Even if our waiter hadn't made all that effort, the Vietnamese noodle salad called bun made the 45-minute drive worth it. The dish is a marvel of complexity. Sizzling rolls of thinly sliced beef top rice vermicelli noodles. Mint, scallion, ginger and basil thread their way throughout the noodles, and a drizzle of fish sauce gives the dish just a hint of sharpness. This is perfect summer food -- it's light and fresh yet soul-satisfying.
Thrill of the Grill: Charcoal-grilled meats are the specialty here, and dishes haven't been edited for squeamish American palates. Don't expect to be able to identify what part of the chicken you're eating -- just dig in. A garlicky-sweet glaze coats the charred meat, and a splash of tangy fish sauce makes the flavors really pop. Sliced cucumbers and pickled carrots offer a crisp, cooling counterpoint. Stir-fried dishes show up under the "Chef's Specials" on the menu, and though they're not nearly as memorable as the grilled dishes and noodle bowls, they'll do in a pinch. A fresh, uncomplicated stir-fry featured plump shrimp with bamboo shoots and veggies in a mild garlic sauce.
Roll With It: Spring rolls, a standard of the Vietnamese table, are ably rendered and full of goodies like shrimp, sliced pork, bean thread noodles and fresh herbs. Bean curd skin rolls, chunks of tofu wrapped in bean curd skin and fried until golden, come on the side with c'om (rice dishes). They're crispy on the outside with a mellow, toasty flavor.
I know what you're thinking. Driving out to Duluth in a code-purple smog alert may not be your idea of summertime fun. Think of it as an adventure -- a road trip, even. Trust me, some seriously good food is waiting at the end of the line.
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