Restaurateurs Jeana Johnson and Colleen OHare could have just opened another steakhouse. The two chefs have deep experience in the fine-dining world, at high-end restaurants such as Stephan Pyles and the Green Room.
They also could have opened a second branch of Good 2 Go Taco, their gourmet taco restaurant in East Dallas. It has a big following, and everyone loves tacos. They could have done a burger joint, having created the menu for Goodfriend Beer Garden and Burger House.
But for their new East Dallas restaurant Mot Hai Ba, they took a more interesting route one that nets us excellent food and the addition of something incomparably unique to the local dining scene.
Mot Hai Ba pronounced moat high bah, or if you like, just MHB does North Vietnamese food, with authentically prepared dishes that we havent seen before. The two chefs learned first-hand by traveling to North Vietnam, immersing themselves in the cuisine and studying recipes.
They nabbed the intimate spot in East Dallas that was once occupied by the revered York Street, which closed in 2010. Their makeover is sleek and sophisticated, with charcoal walls, polished tables and low stools. Tables are semi-communal; expect to share your table with a friendly stranger or two.
The food is a revelation, with familiar items and some brand new. A thoughtful, helpful staff guides guides you through the awkward pitfalls of being a novice. The menu differs at lunch and dinner, so you can eat there twice in a day and not repeat yourself.
If youre craving the two most popular Vietnamese items banh mi sandwich and pho soup youll need to come at lunch. Their versions are first-rate, with a chefs spin.
Pho ($10-$12), the fragrant, nuanced rice noodle soup, comes in three options: with beef, poached chicken or tofu. The beef contained chunks of brisket and tenderloin; its broth had an earthy mineral flavor. Chicken pho was lighter and sweeter. A poached chicken breast, snowy white, was cut into thin slices with appealing sharp edges. Tofu had been cut into squares with a browned crust, achieved by frying them twice, like fancy French fries.
Banh mi ($6-$9) comes in even more options: classic liver paté, roasted pork, pork belly, beef, egg omelet or tofu. A banh mi has only a few ingredients carrot, cilantro. The make-or-break ingredients include the spicy mayo, and MHB makes its own, a zesty spread that added a rich kick. The other key ingredient is the bread. The ideal is a light, crisp baguette made with rice flour; Johnson and OHare procure theirs from a bakery whose identity they will not divulge.
Other lunch must-gets include char-grilled pork belly and pork meatball ($11), a kind of noodle stew that lets you explore the contrasts: the bacon-like pork belly with its blackened crisp edge, the melting texture of the meatball and chewy-soft vermicelli. The Hanoi lunch ($15) is their version of a Bento box, with a small salad, imperial roll, entree of the day and fresh tropical fruit.
Dinner is broken into appetizers, entrees and desserts, labeled Mot, Hai and Ba (which translates into 1-2-3); but its commonplace to mix and match. Barbecued 5-spice chicken wings ($6) represent their twist on the sports bar classic. Share them with frog legs ($7) in a tempura crust. Entrées include crab, grilled chicken and a nightly fish special; but the showpiece is bo luc lac, or shaking beef ($24), with large tender medallions in a spicy-sweet glaze over a bed of white rice with greens on the side an exotic cousin to the beef tips youd find at a steakhouse.
The most exciting thing about the food is its unlikely collision of textures and flavors: crunchy and tender, salty and sweet, fresh and fried.
The beer and wine list includes gems such as Hitachino Nest, a micro-brewed beer from Japan, that you wont find anywhere else. At Mot Hai Ba, you come away having experienced something entirely new. How often can you say that?