For a lot of us in town, we know about Cosmo’s Restaurant and Bar. It has a solid jukebox, delightfully retro decor and the perfect dive bar vibe.
Somehow, many still don’t know that the best part of this place comes from the slip of paper that’s clipped to the laminated menu: the Vietnamese food.
We wrote about this back in 2015 — that would’ve been been about four years after Jackson Tran started dishing out banh mi sandwiches to get more people to hang out at the East Dallas spot on Monday nights.
Since then, a menu has grown from that special to a handwritten specials board to that full sheet of paper. Tran, who’s been at Cosmo’s 18 of its 19 years, was also made a business partner last year.
Navigating the menu is something he’s fine to help you with, as there are plenty of things that aren’t “the norm” for many. My own advice? Go for anything with broth.
There’s some secret that makes that broth addictive and anything in it perfection. Maybe it’s MSG, maybe it’s a lot of salt, maybe it’s hours of patience. Tran won’t say. He just says it’s how his mom always made it.
“Before this, I was working at my parents’ restaurant and I was working at Landry’s bartending, shucking oysters, I worked at Lombardi’s, I’ve been in the industry quite a while,” says Tran, 39. “This all started with the banh mi.”
They were making pizzas in the then-smaller kitchen, and incorporating the Vietnamese sandwiches was pretty easy.
“We did that for a couple of years then I started to do one or two items during the weekend; it would just be random,” he says. “I would do pho one week, then I’d do a spicy egg noodle soup or a Hue soup, an essential Vietnamese soup. I’d do rice dishes, vermicelli dishes, it was basically a rotating menu.”
It came to him easily enough because he had spent so much time in his parents’ restaurant, Vietnam Restaurant in Casa View (not associated with the Bryan Street restaurant by the same name). They operated from 1982 to 2000. Tran was an East Dallas kid, growing up on the east side of White Rock and attending Bryan Adams High School.
“I’m a Dallas kid,” he says. “My parents think this is great. My mom, she helps me with ideas and things like that.”
One recent special was an oxtail soup, which was delicious, but really had the flavoring of bun bo hue — a classic soup (from the Vietnamese town of Hue, a great food destination, btw) that’s heavy on lemongrass and spice. Noodles are also usually round, not flat, too.
He, along with his older brother and sister, spent much of their youth cooking Vietnamese food.
“I grew up with it, I’ve been working with my mom ever since I was a kid,” he says. “We had a babysitter when we were really young, but once we were able to lift plates or a knife, we were at the restaurant.”
The pho ($14) started at Cosmo’s about three years ago.
“It’s about the same age as my daughter,” he says.
It’s not uncommon to find Dallas chefs and writers at Cosmo’s with their head over a large bowl of pho, one that’s savory and leans just to the right amount of spicy. Peja Krstic, who owns Mot Hai Ba within walking distance, is there all the time for the soup, along with other chefs we’re fans of.
Another must-get item people can’t figure out until they have it is the fried seaweed rolls ($10). Don’t overthink it, they’re simply rolls of seaweed and fried. There’s a complementing texture from the outside to softer interior, and there’s honestly just nothing that comes to mind in town that’s like them.
“People are always questioning those. It’s kind of vague on the menu, so we explain what's in it, stuff like that, the texture contrast,” Tran says.
There are also tater tots. But not like the tater tots at brunch that were oh-so-popular around 2017. These are extremely crispy tots topped with kimchi ($11). They magically stay crisp despite the funky concoction sitting on top of them. They’re a mess and totally filling and satisfying.
The spicy egg noodle soup and the broccoli and mushroom are Tran’s favorites. But he knows the menu well; part of his gig is telling people about it.
“For the longest time it was just me in the kitchen; now I have a full staff so I can be out here, explain to everyone the dish, if they have any allergies,” Tran says.
Going back to the magic broth, you can get some stock, and along with it some steamed pork and cabbage dumplings ($12). The dumplings are perfectly fine; anything in that broth is made into something wonderful.
That broth, along with other recipes, are decades old in technique. Both of Tran’s parents are from around the Mekong Delta; his wife’s family is from the same area, too.
“They used to do alley, street food, so basically there’s main little alleys that go through main streets, and they used to do that, and they’d serve all the community, the neighbors,” he says.
And now Tran is serving his own neighbors.
He says Cosmo’s is a winter bar, complete with the fireplace inside and the fire pit on the back patio. It could be the fire, or it could be the pho. We’re still going in year-round for some of the best Vietnamese food in East Dallas.
Cosmo's Restaurant and Bar, 1212 Skillman St. (East Dallas). 214-826-4200. Open 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily.
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