Mot Hai Ba Turns Vietnamese-American Classics Upside Down
It was wildly unexpected when Colleen O'Hare and Jeana Johnson announced their latest restaurant. They'd already successfully tackled tacos more suited for gringos than for those raised on the streets of Mexico City. Authenticity be damned — those tacos were delicious, and Good 2 Go quickly became an East Dallas fixture. But when two women from Texas decided to undertake the complex cuisine of northern Vietnam, their aspirations seemed lofty, perhaps even cocky. They'd only taken two short trips to soak up the country's culinary terroir. Surely, this was a bad idea. Just learning to use a wok without losing your eyebrows or reducing ingredients to carbon can take some time.
Mot Hai Ba opened in April in the small standalone building that used to hold Bistro Watel. O'Hare and Johnson turned the postage stamp of a restaurant upside down (literally, table lamps hang from the ceiling), creating a quaint neighborhood spot with a vaguely Asian feel. They moved and expanded the bar and built stout round stools with plywood tops and no seat backs. They're not comfortable at all, but they look interesting. Picture makeshift seats at a street stall somewhere in Hanoi.
Along one wall, communal tables pack diners into the comfy but not too crowded dining room. Show up with a party of six and you'll sit with your friends. Show up with anything smaller and you might make some new ones.
There's certainly a lot to talk about, whomever you end up sitting with. The menu throws out a few surprises such as frogs' legs scented with dill and fried till they're delicious, and prawns served with their faces intact, looking at you with beady black eyes. Eat the former carefully or you could choke on Kermit's tiny thighbones. Eat the latter with abandon, head, tail and all, and note juxtaposing flavors and textures of the perfectly grilled prawns.
Other dishes are less challenging but no less delicious. The lunch menu reads like a playbook of Vietnamese-American classics, yet none of these dishes tastes clichéd.
Grilled pork vermicelli is as good as it ever has been. Aggressively charred, the belly meat packs huge flavors that lend a helping hand to the plain noodles. Fish sauce draws everything together — a blend of pungency, umami and the kiss of real flame. A chicken and cabbage salad wakes up your mouth with brightness. Banh mi come with pickles that could use a bit more zing, but the sandwiches are still wholly satisfying. The grilled pork version is the best, but only because it provides an excuse for more of that deliciously charred pork. You might wonder if it's burnt, and absolutely it is. The delicious, crisp-yet-tender and juicy meat has real personality.
The shaking beef, on the other hand, is like that date you want to love but just can't devour. It's missing the passionate heat of a wok as hot as the surface of the sun. There are no wok burners at Mot Hai Ba and thus no subtle breath that only a wok can impart. The tender beef tenderloin is seasoned with spice and sweetness that work well together, but a sautée pan, no matter how hot, will never produce the charred tones that make stir-fried dishes so addictive. That's one way to delve into Vietnamese cooking quickly — skip over the one piece of equipment that's the hardest to master.
Other dishes that simmer instead of sear aren't hurt by the omission. Market crab is a messy number but worth the dry cleaning. The crab's guts and fat are emulsified in fish stock with butter, and the resulting sauce is used to dress springy rice noodles. Don't be timid; these crab legs must be disassembled with reckless enthusiasm. You'll be rewarded for your labor while you savor every noodle to the bottom of the bowl. The market fish (grouper one night, snapper the next) flavored with dill and ginger and yellowed with turmeric is just as good. Or try a green papaya salad, which is not cooked at all but dressed in lime and chile and garnished with tiny shards of beef jerky for salt and texture.
Dishes like these transcend preparations at some Vietnamese-owned restaurants because they pack bigger, brighter and fresher flavors. Mot Hai Ba brings something interesting and new to its East Dallas neighborhood.
Order yourself the imperial spring roll or the crispy pancake stuffed with shrimp that for once is not oily and quite crisp. Both are served with green lettuce leaves and a mixture of herbs that rival the wilted selection at an Asian grocery and taste more alive. Pick up a lettuce leaf and place either a crunchy spring roll or a pizza slice of the pancake on top. Ask for chiles, if you don't already have them, and add as much as you can handle, and then just a single herb of your choosing or you'll create too much noise. Roll the bundle into a messy cigar and dip as much of it as you can into the fish sauce that's served alongside. Now take the biggest bite you're able.
There it is. That's what you're looking for. While an Asian restaurant with no wok sounds like a French bistro without butter, the flavors you're experiencing undeniably conjure the heart of Vietnamese cooking. Authentic? Maybe. But you don't really care. You've just grabbed a second lettuce leaf and let your mind wander off to some quiet place where such things don't matter.
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