Convincing devoted urbanites to venture to Garland can be a hard sell, no matter how hungry they are. The endless concrete pavement and strip malls, all heavily guarded by expansive parking lots, aren't inviting for exploration, especially when polished ethnic eateries lurk inside the loop. But culinary adventurers willing to brave the bad traffic and even worse sight lines can be rewarded for their suburban sleuthing.
Especially if they find themselves in the Hiep Thai Market, just off Jupiter Road. Waiting inside the Asian market are massive and prickly jackfruits positioned next to pungent durian that leak a sweet, musky odor. Elsewhere in the produce section are obscure Asian herbs: lemony, mint-like shiso, Thai basil and Vietnamese coriander.
There's a sizable fish counter with lobsters and fish — some living, some not — alongside frozen and dried sea creatures. There's balut, an embryonic egg delicacy that I've not yet gathered the courage to try. (They come in duck or chicken; when I succumb, I'll probably go with duck.) There are also full-grown whole birds, with or without their heads but always with their feet, prized for the flavor and texture they add to a home-made chicken stock.
Even if you're not shopping for exotic ingredients to cook with, it's enlightening to walk the aisles, which are loaded with foreign fragrances and 50-pound bags of rice. It's also where you'll pick up a six-pack before sneaking through the adjacent battered shopping mall, past the nail salon and barber shop, to My Lan.
A clean, expansive Vietnamese restaurant, My Lan allows its patrons — encourages, in fact — to BYOB. Most Asian restaurants limit your choices: Sapporo, Tiger, Tsing Tao, etc. With BYOB your options can be limitless, cheap or both. I went cheap on my first visit, strolling in with a Chinese lager and settling in for appetizers.
"Have you rolled with rice paper before?" my waitress asked.
Of course I had. But never while under the inspection of an expert. My integrity, my very reputation as a culinary journalist, was on the line.
I dipped a papery-thin, translucent wafer into a bowl of warm water. I felt it immediately give way, eventually wilting into a wet, almost rubbery skin that clung to my fingers.
Mistakenly undaunted, I took two sticks of chao tom, a shrimp paste, and added them to a roll that already contained a slice of cucumber, a shredded and very lightly pickled daikon and carrot, a tangle of noodles and a shiso leaf.
"No, no, only one," she instructed.
Han Nguyen, my 21-year-old server, had only worked at My Lan a few months. Apparently she helps out when she's not busy as an exchange student. She was ultra curious about the only diner on a quiet Sunday evening. She was ultra helpful, too. She pointed to the garnish plate, where I'd overlooked bean sprouts, and then back to my rice paper. Soaked a fraction of a second too long, it was now a crumpled, sticky mass.
I surrendered. Nguyen was clearly aching to show me how to properly construct the Vietnamese rolls, and it was obvious a short demonstration wouldn't hurt. She grabbed a rice paper, quickly floated it through the bowl and handed it to me. It was still firm but continued to wilt while I worked, a much easier task this time. I added the other ingredients from my first spent roll and folded the results into a haphazard cylinder, dipping the fat cigar into a fish sauce lightly sweetened with sugar and coconut juice.
The slightly salty shrimp paste that anchored my crudely rolled contraption isn't the fermented ingredient used to flavor Asian curries. Instead it's a sort of shrimp mousse, tantamount to shrimp in a blender ramped up with fish sauce, garlic and other seasonings. The paste is formed into cakes, fried and cut into strips that resemble prawn-flavored french fries. Paired with fresh vegetables, chewy rice paper, fragrant herbs and pungent fish sauce, they form the perfect balance of savory, salty and sweet — a fresh, reasonably healthy appetizer that's as fun to construct as it is to eat.
If pulverized shrimp isn't your thing, you can order the same snack with grilled pork, grilled beef or meat patties. Make note of each ingredient as you try them; you'll see the same meats elsewhere on the menu at My Lan, which, like many Vietnamese restaurants, reuses finished ingredients more than once.
Speaking of re-use: Dan Bui, a multi-generation restaurateur, is re-using a successful restaurant model with My Lan. The original My Lan opened in 1996 in Fort Worth, where wife Nguyet Nguyen, mother Qui and brother Michael earned a reputation for serving simple, non-fussy food to a mostly Vietnamese customer base. Bui says that original location does a brisk business, but his new location, opened in February, still has a smaller following.
On my quiet Sunday evening, after that intense rice paper session, I was joined by a second table, a couple, while Bui helped me navigate his menu and football played on a single flat-screen. He was out from the kitchen to make sure his waitress had taken my order properly. I'd requested three dishes, a lot for a single diner. After talking, we decided that I'd follow up my Chao Tom with a hot bowl of Pho and a Korean BBQ rib served with fried rice — Bui's favorite.
The BBQ Pork, listed on the menu under Chef's Specialties, makes use of rib meat, cut perpendicular to the rib cage instead of parallel. The result is a long, thin cut of pork punctuated by two or three circular cross sections of bone. The pork is salty, chewy and ultimately addictive — if, that is, you like gnashing teeth and pulling meat from bone.
There are plenty of soups. Each arrives from the kitchen in a large bowl, always steaming hot and embellished with meat, or seafood, or vegetables, or all three.
Bui's pho stock, made from beef bones, onion and ginger, is lightly enhanced with star anise, cinnamon and cardamom. The spices are a whisper, not a shout, appearing in the back of your nose with a first steaming sip, and settling down as you settle in. Order the combination, which pairs brisket with rare beef, soft gelatinous tendon, thin ribbons of tripe and rubbery meatballs I'm sure would bounce if they hadn't already been cut in half.
Banh Canh leverages a chili-laden broth based in lemongrass that the restaurant will prepare extra hot if you like. Tender and flavorful pork floats in the earthy and intense stock, alongside thick and doughy pasta that contrast the thin rice noodles you'll find in the pho and other soups.
Hu Tiu is a soup based on pork and chicken bones that makes use of those same thin vermicelli noodles. I tried it with shrimp, chewy cuttle fish and BBQ pork. Those noodles varied each time I visited, once arriving tender but toothsome, and another time presenting a soft tennis ball-sized wad in the bottom of the bowl.
The vermicelli bowls, another standby, present noodles sitting on a bed of lettuce and topped with fresh vegetables and many of the proteins featured in the appetizer menu. Shrimp paste is back, now wrapped in a thin bean curd skin and deep-fried. That same pork-shoulder meat works too, at least when the grill is hot and imparts a decent char. But it's lifeless when the kitchen has the heat turned down, which seems to happen from time to time.
It's one of a number of ways that My Lan fails to match up to the refined and tailored experience sought by the urbane foodnick in search of trendy, comfortable Asian cuisine. They'll find the dining room dull and the food a hit-and-miss. But packaged with the Hiep Thai Market, and supplemented with take-in beer, the restaurant makes for a compelling culinary adventure I'd likely repeat. I might even try that balut next time.