Mot Hai Ba Chef Jeana Johnson Did R&D in Vietnam, with Help from a Dude Named Dragon

Mot Hai Ba Chef Jeana Johnson Did R&D in Vietnam, with Help from a Dude Named Dragon
Jeana Johnson and Colleen O'Hare

Jeana Johnson and Colleen O'Hare are the proprietors of the little hot spot in East Dallas, Mot Hai Ba, as wells as Good 2 Go Taco. Their culinary trail winds far and wide through the Dallas landscape. Collectively, the pins on their map include Ciudad, Daddy Jack's, The Standard in Deep Ellum, The Green Room, Stephan Pyles, York Street, Good To Go Taco, Goodfriends and Acme F&B, as either cooks, chefs, owners or all three.

In between all of that, the girls have found a little time for vacation, including a motorcycle trip through Vietnam. Recently we chatted with Jeana Johnson about their travels, their tour guides Dragon and Phouc, the Vietnamese yard-to-table movement and snotty broth.

Was this your first trip to Vietnam? We have been twice. The first time in April of 2011, we went for a motorcycle trip. Started in Hanoi then drove south to really small villages and basically switched back and forth, west and east, across the country for a few weeks.

The Market Crab served at Mot Hai Ba.
The Market Crab served at Mot Hai Ba.
Catherine Downes

Did you have a guide? Yes, this guy named Dragon, who learned to speak English by listening to heavy metal music.

So you hit the small spots in different villages? Most of the places we ate for lunch were three walls and a garage door and a little lady in the back cooking. A lot of times it was like, "We'll have the chicken." Then, you look out and there's one less chicken running around.

Brings farm-to-table to a whole other level, huh? It does. I think the Vietnamese people would laugh their asses off at our farm to table movement. No one really even has a refrigerator there.

What surprised you the most about the food? We weren't as struck as much by what we ate as we were by how different it is from the Vietnamese food we have here. We were predominantly in the north and central part of Vietnam; we only spent four days below the demilitarized zone. We were expecting this really saucy food, but we ate ribs everyday. And ostrich, goat breast, an unidentifiable forest animal at a place called the Perfume Pagoda. When we got there it was a whole animal hanging there. By the time we left it had a head, one leg and a spine.

So, your most recent trip was more purpose driven? Yes, the second trip was strictly for R&D. We got this space in February and were back in Vietnam in March of this year for nine days. We hooked back up with Dragon from the first trip.

How was Dragon? Good. He actually got married while we were there.

Did you go to the wedding? We were invited, but our Facebook got cut off after a couple of days and so we didn't have a way to find it.

Why was your Facebook shut down? The communist government there. They don't like the Facebook.

Did you do a Facebook check-in in Hanoi and the government tagged you? Something like that. It was funny though, Dragon originally wasn't going to be there when we were there, but then he had a change of plans, to get married, and we just happened to run right into him walking down the street.

Wait, you didn't plan on meeting him, you just ran into the only person you know in a country on the other side of the world? Well, we wrote him before to tell him we were coming, but he told us he was going to out of town, but that all changed. So, he happened to be in town, but we didn't know. And we ran right into him on the street. We had a beer and lunch. It was great because he introduced us to a dish that we would have never had if we hadn't met him.

What was it? It's called banh cuon, which is a rice pancake with pork, mushrooms and shallots rolled up into and is dipped into a broth. Philly is known for cheese steak, Hanoi is known for banh cuon.

He made a list of every other place to go after that. He also helped us get a lot of other things that were almost impossible to get otherwise, like we wanted to get a banh cuon pan and when we would try to buy one people would look at us like we were crazy and really inflate the price. So, he set us up with this other guy who helped us with that, whose name was David. Well, his real name was Phouc [fuhk], but he changed it to David.

Why David? That's just what he called himself. He's also a tour guide, so he's around English speakers all day.

Phouc could be a really catchy gimmick if he were an industrious tour guide. I think he probably got tired of the jokes.

American jokes? Yeah, like, "What the fuck, Phouc?"

Are you drawn to the Vietnamese lifestyle? Other chefs I've met that have been there love it (like the Wages at Malai). I think it's perfect for people in the restaurant business. It's all work hard/play hard. The country operates in this sort of organized chaos. For example, when you head into a town on a motorcycle, you won't see a stop light through the entire city. You just go. And don't hit your breaks. And it works. It's perfect. I love it.  

Mot Hai Ba Chef Jeana Johnson Did R&D in Vietnam, with Help from a Dude Named Dragon
Jeana Johnson and Colleen O'Hare

Are there any textures or flavors in Vietnam that just don't work over here? Well, in general the American palate isn't real accustomed to that whole gelatin thing. A snack there is che, which is a cup with long strips of jelly, lychee, yogurt, beans...

Yeah, that's getting hard to visualize. There's this other dessert that's a huge bowl of this gelatinous rice that's in this snotty broth.

Snotty broth? I like it now, but the first time I had it, it did not work out well for me. I have this pretty rockin' gag reflex.

Meaning it's sensitive? Very. A lot of stuff grosses me out. We had another dish that was cassava ravioli. They wrap it up in these banana leaves and then undo it and this little cassava is in there that looks like this pink-orange membrane. I'm not a big fan of that. We haven't really pushed into that realm of things here. There are also the fetal eggs. [Gag reflex] You see a ton of that happening.

Then there were other things we did try and got used to, like crickets. I mean, if you wrap them in a lime leaf and the legs don't have a lot of room to poke you, it's not as bad as you'd think.

But, we definitely stuck with the more recognizable textures.

What was the worse thing you had? We didn't taste anything bad, but there were a lot thing that you really had to wrap your head around and tell yourself, "Ok. It isn't snot. In your mouth it looks and feels just like snot. But, it's not snot."

"It's not snot." Best line ever from a chef interview, by the way. We also ate a few things that were amazing, but we didn't know what we were eating and got back and Googled it. Like there was this oil in our banh quon. And so I asked Dragon about the oil and he's like "Oh, it's jut oil, just eat it. Don't worry about it."

Turns out to be giant water bug oil. It taste just like Fruit Loops. Now we know what Fruit Loops are made of.

Are you serious? No.

Let's talk about pho for breakfast. People want to know why they can't have pho for dinner at Mot Ha Bai. Did you dabble in pho there? Absolutely. The hotel we stayed at would go down the street and get it for us every morning.

So, one thing that we were very specific about in terms of research was not only to experience all the different foods, but also to pinpoint other details, like that not a single human being would eat banh quon for dinner. It's not made for dinner. And so we don't serve it here for dinner because they wouldn't in Vietnam.

With regards to pho, there are some places in Vietnam, in the high-tourist areas, where you can go and get pho all day. But, it is specifically for tourists and hipster kids in Hanoi. Pho is a 24-hour in-the-round thing. It's not a thing where you say, "Hey, we're out. I'll go whip up some more."

Let's talk about this specific parcel of land. This building has a lot of rich history. Do you get a lot of comparisons to York Street? Every day this is becoming more Mot Hai Ba and less York Street. I think it's becoming a unique identity. It doesn't hurt that the building looks so different now. But, on day one when we opened, we had people in here crying because they missed York Street so much.

Colleen even worked here a back when it was York Street, right? Yes, Colleen worked here and I lived just around the corner. We hang out in this area. We have a ton of history here in this area.

As far as the York street thing goes, I think people are starting to be less disappointed that it's not York Street anymore.

Any more plans to go to Vietnam again? I have flight information pulled up on my phone right now. We want to go back for Tet, which is the Vietnamese New Year. During Tet they make very specific foods that aren't made any other time of the year.

Think you could live there? Off-grid, no stop lights or Facebook? Just a yard full of constantly disappearing chickens? The first time I was there in the countryside, I thought we could just buy a little parcel of land. It would cost next to nothing to live there. But, getting around the government would be hard. In Hanoi it was different. We were like "Look! We saw that rat yesterday." It's a little different in the city. I love it there and I'm completely mystified and in love with the country, but I don't know. Maybe up in the mountains or at the beach.

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