An Open Letter to Mot Hai Ba: The Upcoming East Dallas Vietnamese Restaurant

Categories: Wok the Talk

yutaka2.jpg
These. Are. Delicious.
Dear Mot Hai Ba:

You better bring it. There is a massive hole in Dallas' dining scene that you could exploit, and I know if you do this city will be all the better for it. The announcement of your coming existence in a Culture Map blog post was a welcome one, and your creators, Jeana Johnson and Colleen O'Hare, have blessed Dallas with some great concepts. Good 2 Go Taco is a gift for its East Dallas neighborhood, but this city needs so much more.

Please don't try to fit in. We already have some polished Vietnamese concepts like Malai, Lemongrass and Dalat. These are good restaurants. They have made Vietnamese cuisine more accessible to timid diners who might not otherwise try a new cuisine. They cook well with great ingredients and offer warm welcoming dining rooms that their suburban counterparts sometimes lack. But they also leave much on the table.

I'm concerned about your creators' mention of authenticity, because this is what Dallas needs most.

In the blog post I just mentioned, Johnson says pho is a breakfast and early lunch dish, and that "no one in Vietnam would eat pho at night." So she's planning on serving pho at lunch but not at dinner, to make it more authentic. I guess that's a form of authenticity. But it's also very tone deaf.

We don't need lunch time only pho; what we need is pho that's cooked with heart. We need broth made from slowly simmered bones and enlivened with garden-fresh aromatics. We need pho with the tendon and tripe and exotic meats that mark the bowls served in Vietnam. We need some up-scale pho that retains its grit -- the bowls that have inspired an entire globe of authentic pho lovers.

We need other authentic dishes too. We need recipes that lean heavily on fish sauce, shrimp paste, chilies and other ingredients that make Vietnamese food truly authentic. We need curries that aren't offered in hotness levels of one through five, but are instead simply spicy, because that's how they're served in Vietnam.

When I talked to the owners of Malai and asked them why their pho had no tendon or tripe, I was told nobody would eat that. The owner of Lemongrass told me the same thing. This is absolutely wrong.

Dallas is ready for something bigger. We are a city that's embraced beef heart paté and restaurants built entirely on nose-to-tail cooking. We devour pudding thickened with pig's blood and eat chicken cartilage at izakayas. We suck the guts out of mudbugs and devour deep-fried shrimp heads whole.

Have you heard of barbacoa? It's made from the collagen-loaded, fatty cheeks of cows and in some instances the entire skull. We devour that shit by the pound and we love it. We're ready for more.

The whole country is starting to look at Dallas right now. We've garnered more national press and more James Beard nominations than we ever have before. It's our turn to shine. But we won't do that by embracing dumbed-down recipes that hide us from the ingredients some think we're afraid of. The "Dallas palate" that we hear so much about has been slowly awakening. I see more and more of it every day.

Give us a restaurant that appeals to these elevated taste buds. We are absolutely ready for it. You can either give us what we need and truly bring us something new to help us move forward, or stay stuck in the past and be left behind.

Sincerely,
Scott Reitz
Food Critic Guy


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47 comments
Melon
Melon

I'm really tired of "critics"  trying to review "Authentic Vietnamese" food. What makes food authentic? I hardly know any friends who want tendon and tripe in their pho.. and I am Vietnamese. 

"Refined" Vietnamese.. people complain about a banh mi sandwich being 6$ when subway sells sandwiches for 5$... now its buy one get one free.  A banh mi requires meat to be marinated, grilled, veggies such as jalepenos, cucumbers, cilantro to be sliced fresh, carrots to be pickled and crispy etc. Not all restaurants use the same quality of meat. Have you compared what type of meat whether it be filet mignon or not? Stop just focusing the the broth which you know absolutely nothing about.. What are yout credentials?  If you suspect a place of using "powder" ask to see their oxtail bones it's 10$  a bag at any asian market...  A pho from Pho Colonial with it's perfectly cooked and thick brisket (10-12$), or Pho is for Lovers with their overload of fresh meat is justified at 8-9$ a bowl. You do not realize that the meat you get served at Bistro B is trash... or that they barely pay their employees. Ask which Pho chain in Dallas provides benefits for their employees or pays at above minimum wage. 

You are clearly just an uninformed "critic" not a businessman. How much do you get paid per bs article?

MissMacy
MissMacy

Whoa, I'd rather eat peanut butter and jelly any day of the week than any of that crazy crapola. No thanks.

Twinwillow
Twinwillow

I like DaLat and Bistro B for Pho. 

Wiley1
Wiley1

There's a guy named Andy Ricker in Portland who opened a place called "Pok-Pok", based on his travel and research of Thailand, street food and what not. It's hugely popular, hip, been written about a million times and there's been a wait every night for years.

I imagine this will be of a similar vein and there's nothing wrong with that. On the outside it's a couple white chicks re-examining an ethnic cuisine with fresh, quality ingredients and a lean towards gourmet or artisan if you want to use those f'ing words.

But Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and other ethnic cuisine sure as hell can be shit quality sometimes and even further away from anything authentic. I like Vietnam Restaurant and a couple places in Garland as well, but I wouldn't mind something a bit more forward.

Lastly, we should celebrate these two for sticking their neck out and doing creative things like this in Dallas. We always bemoan the unrelenting press and talk about Austin, Portland, Brooklyn, etc....but this is the kind of shit we need.

primi_timpano
primi_timpano topcommenter

Mai's is not great. Vietnam is much better.

Please bring Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City street food and import some old lady Vietnamese street cooks to make it.

therrick
therrick

Refined pho? Sounds kind of bass ackwards to me, but whatever. 

Don't eat pho at night? That will come as quite a surprise to my Vietnamese friends

CitizenKane
CitizenKane

Call me a skeptic;  i have a hard time buying into the idea that 2 southern white chicks can turn out anything close to credible and authentic Vietnamese.

Begs the question, why are they even trying ?  

That model doesn't work for most ethnic foods.........although the Albanians have been good at replicating "italian style"...but then Albania is just a short jaunt from the bootheal of Italy !

Craigley
Craigley

Polished Vietnamese concepts?  What a bunch of Midwestern terds.

John Nguyen
John Nguyen

As a Vietnamese person, I'm chuckling on their name. It simply means: "One Two Three."

brandir1
brandir1

We will pay more than we do at our favorite hole-in-the-wall/no English Vietnamese spot...but we want more from it. Not just atmosphere. Food-wise it will have to offer something more, something different. I am hopeful.

Branson Heinz
Branson Heinz

There are tons of authentic Vietnamese place in the area, just none of them are in Dallas. They are in Haltom City, Arlington, Irving, Carrollton, and Garland.

brian.martin
brian.martin

all the pho joints over here in FW (Haltom City to be specific) load their pho with tripe and soft tendon..whas up with that?

Melon
Melon

@Twinwillow Dalat has a good late night vibe going.. if you're drunk it's delish. Bistro B on the other hand.. not so great unless you're a cheapskate.

primi_timpano
primi_timpano topcommenter

@Twinwillow

Ditto DaLat. Excellent broth.

adkim
adkim

@primi_timpano 


have you been to vietnam lately?  i think they quit giving a fuck a while ago.  it's evident in the way they slice their onions for the pho.  the last three visits was immensely disappointing.  almost maddening.  

FatCap
FatCap

@therrick You're right, Rick. Pho, and most noodle & rice dishes, are "anytime" foods in Viet Nam. Hawkers stroll through neighborhoods at night with a everything needed to prepare a steaming hot bowl of pho in two "baskets" balanced at the end of a plank (often bamboo) carried across the  back of their shoulders (look up "quang ganh"). Rice dishes, steamed and baked buns, satays, and all sorts of noodles are offered by other hawkers and also abound in night markets. The notion that pho is a breakfast or lunch only dish is wrong and is hopefully not an indicator of the depth of the "research" done.

scott.reitz
scott.reitz moderator

@therrick a large percentage of the pho restaurants in Dallas use soup base. It's a powdery, bullion-like substance that adds lots of sodium and "real" beefy flavor to the broth. When I say refined I"m talking about pho cooked from scratch, which is surprisingly rare.

scott.reitz
scott.reitz moderator

@CitizenKane I think it's possible. You could make pho at home no problem -- you'd just have to spend the day doing it. All it takes is good recipes, and a dedication to craftsmanship. 


Eh, I'm skeptical too.

FatCap
FatCap

@Craigley never been to Chicago, or NYC, or D.C., or S. California, where polished Viet concepts have thrived for decades?

scott.reitz
scott.reitz moderator

@Sheldon23 The best I could find with a "potentially scary ingredient" in it.  If you've got a sexy tripe photo hand it over.

scott.reitz
scott.reitz moderator

@whocareswhatithink Mai's is great, but I'd classify it as a casual Vietnamese restaurant. What I'm focusing is something a touch more refined. The same level of execution that you'd find at a Bolsa, or recently lost Ava, only applied to Vietnamese cuisine.

Twinwillow
Twinwillow

@adkim @primi_timpano I agree. I think Vietnam has gone way downhill over the last year or so. I don't go there anymore.

I love DaLat. It's only a 1/2 mile from my home.

I'm very comfortable there. The Pho and everything else they serve is excellent. As is Khanh, the very personable and caring owner.


primi_timpano
primi_timpano topcommenter

@adkim @primi_timpano

I agree Vietnam is not as good as the N Dallas Vietnamese restaurants, but in central Dallas I have to pick Vietnam over Mai's by quite a bit. I used to prefer Oishii, but that is off the table for a while. It has been a while since I've been to Lemongrass or East Wind so it is due for a visit. If you have any suggestions, please share them.

Guest
Guest

@scott.reitz @therrick 

Sorry, Scott, that's not true.  Beef bones are very very very cheap.  Cheaper than the soup base.  Most VN restaurants make it from scratch, whether or not self-proclaimed non-Vietnamese "pho experts" deem it so.  It's more a matter of the aromatics and how long they want to stew the bones for flavor, and of course, preference.  I can only think of ONE place that you reviewed that uses the powdery stuff.  Everywhere else is made from scratch.  If it sucks, it's because the chef is lazy or has poor technique.

As a Vietnamese person, I have never eaten properly-made pho by a non-Vietnamese chef.  The pho at Nova and Lemongrass is not authentic, though that doesn't make it "wrong."  We don't use lemons, mint or cabbage and the aromatics are, I am assuming, deduced (intelligently guessed), on the part of the chefs.  In order for an "elevated" restaurant to succeed, it must be a regular part of the dining routine for the neighborhood.  Yes, a few chefs have pulled off heart tartare, nose to tail cooking, but are they successful?  No, they are probably just spinning their wheels.  Most people are not going to want tripe and tendon every day.  I have eaten some scary, unappetizing foods, but even Vietnamese people don't eat pork blood pudding every single day.  A restaurant can only succeed if it develops a core following of regulars.  (Goodfriend, for example, has a very devoted following of regulars.  They serve burgers and beer)  What Vietnamese person told you that authentic Vietnamese must include offal or regularly-off-putting foods?  You have to remember that nose-to-tail originated from living in poverty.  Due to the rising food costs and cultural interest in culinary arts, today's chef's were forced into using cheaper ingredients.  The point is:  a restaurant can't succeed, not fantastically, if it's serving stuff that people don't want to eat  every single day.  

And, no,   pho is served all day long in VN, though yes, it is typically eaten as breakfast.  In a large, international city like Saigon, there are plenty of Pho shops that are open late.  Some of them do close after lunch, that is true.  

Whats wrong with the Vietnamese restaurants here?   Why are you proclaiming their lack of authenticity?  The fish sauce is still smelly.  The pork is still fatty and the spring rolls are still hand-made with fresh herbs.    


As for Vung Tau Restaurant, that's located in the heart of a prominent Asian-American capital, where 1/4 to 1/3 of the people are Asian.  There are plenty of Asian-American professionals, with wide-ranging income brackets, that can frequent this restaurant.  The foods this restaurant serves are, actually, found all over the DFW metroplex, just not popular in the food blogs.  You can find frog legs at the larger convention-sized restaurants, like Caravelle, where Asian-Americans celebrate their weddings.  If you want higher execution like Ava, well, you have to hire a chef and charge more.  Little Asian ladies don't command a large salary like an esteemed chef, and most people have been very spoiled by the very low prices that the suburban VN restaurants offer.  The reality is that self-proclaimed "pho experts" aren't willing to pay the upcharge for a chef like the late-great Randall and to pay more for the nose-bleed rent the developers charge in a developed area (the overhead that must be passed onto the customers)


Your plea is well-intentioned, but you surely must make note of the cheaper foods that are being re-introduced as haute-cuisine:  burgers, tacos, ramen, sandwiches, flatbread/pizzas -- these all have low food costs and they are non-threatening.  Those are the concepts that are succeeding.  


Sheldon23
Sheldon23

Oishii cooks pho from scratch, no msg. Can't wait for them to reopen.

Sheldon23
Sheldon23

Don't have that, might have a sexy fried Vietnamese style frog leg pic somewhere though...

scott.reitz
scott.reitz moderator

@joe.tone How can you be sure? Despite countless visits, you've only eaten one pork vermicelli dish there.

Guest
Guest

@scott.reitz@whocareswhatithink

The level of execution for VN cuisine is very labor intensive.  It's a revelation to Westerners to "season every step of the way."  It's unheard of to a VN person to not do that.  Nearly everything you eat has been marinated, pre-seasoned, pickled, boiled then fried then seasoned.

 My theory:  the poorer the country was, the more work they for their foods.  English food (not chicken tikka masala) is not well-seasoned.  England used to rule the world -- their food is flavorless and horrendous.  Swedish and Norwegian cuisines - less seasoning, more simple.  A lot of French foods are very simple.  But Thai food, Indian food,  Vietnamese food, Korean food, some Mexican foods, some African foods - loaded with flavor, even too much.

When you are referring to level of execution, there's not many working (executing?)  more than even your typical Vietnamese restaurant.  Eggrolls, pork, chicken, broths for all varieties of soups -- the mise en place is as much as a 4 or 5 star restaurant, even if the palate of the employees and skill-level is rudimentary.  You roast peanuts, roast shallots, make your own lardons, make the scallion dressing -- and that's just the topping!  Not including the various sauces, marinade mixes, salad dressings, braising pre-marinated meats, etc.     

In a high end French restaurant or new American restaurant, the skill level is higher, but there's more emphasis on the quality of ingredients.  You are consuming veal, filets, not cheaper cuts of food.  High quality ingredients require high level of skill.  You assemble flavorful things.  You don't need to do much to quality foods.

Cheap foods = more work, building flavor, covering flavors, marinating, tenderizing, bring OUT flavor.  This goes back to my point about the rising appearance of offal, burgers, pizza, fried chicken, etc - restaurants are working harder than ever for their customers money. 

So yes, if a Vietnamese David Chang would appear in Dallas, that would be a beacon of light in the culinary world - marrying a mix of traditionally cheap and quality ingredients, editing the layers and layers of flavors and textures of traditional Vietnamese foods, and marrying old flavors with new sensitive palates, and getting the average Dallas person to make it a part of routine -- Well, that would be incredible.  The other challenge is getting people to come out and spend money on this food, regularly.  Even the masterful Sharon Hage, whom I have never heard one bad word spoken of in the same paragraph, admitted that the economy was a factor in her closing.  People are pissed when they fork out a hundred dollars for a meal nowadays.  (It's easier to earn a positive review on Yelp for cheap foods, but that's like giving Wal-Mart 5 stars.)        

 Do I think the women from Good-to-Go and formerly Acme F&B can do it?  Probably not, but  I will go and support them.  It has to be a Vietnamese person... (sorry- that's why Chang's good - because he understands Korean foods and Western techniques and palates)  

scott.reitz
scott.reitz moderator

@Guest @scott.reitz "You mistake authenticity for more obscure, challenging foods."

I think you're right. You and I are using these terms a little differently. What i'm looking for are those obscure, challenging dishes and the ability to stand out from common offerings.

Some dried beef liver would be cool too.

On the bones thing... Without inspecting restaurants this is all hard to prove. I've interviewed a soup base manager who says her product is in countless restaurants. When I ask at a  specific restaurant it's always a firm denial. Or the language barrier gets much stronger.

Also no fair editing these long comments!  You're a hard one to keep up with.

Guest
Guest

@scott.reitz @Guest 

( I did not mean Lemongrass in my first statement.  I meant Malai - sorry for the mistype.  I believe Lemongrass makes theirs from scratch)

Other cities like China Town, Little Saigon, San Francisco, Houston?   What I think you mean is more refined, full-service Vietnamese restaurants.  (not necessarily "authentic")

I have eaten at premier Vietnamese restaurants in HCMC.  I can assure you that there is no lack of authenticity in your run-of-the-mill VN restaurant in Arlington, Carollton, Garland, Richardson, etc.  You mistake authenticity for more obscure, challenging foods.  A typical meal consists of fish soup, stirfry, a protein, and rice.   The entire country is marked by a coastline, so seafood is a large part of the diet.    We don't eat crazy pigs blood, ears, offal every day.  Just sometimes. 

I assure you that labor is not a large part of the cost.  The broth tastes bad because:

1.  they did not cook the bones long enough and there was not enough flavor extracted / laziness/ rushing broth / inferior bones, etc

2.  you came later and they watered down the broth, so you got weak leftover pho broth (more incentive for you to eat it earlier in the day)

 There are industry secrets, but no, the pho you think is "bad" is still made from bones.  I have eaten at countless pho restaurants and I have only come across one that used the packet.  Those dive-y places in the burbs stay in business because of VN people.  VN people would NOT eat powdered pho.  It's already cheap, and they just need to drive down the road for another pho restaurant.  

I still have family in VN.  It is naturally farm-to-table.  The idea that food comes in powdered form is not quantifiable in their minds.  It wouldn't make sense.  All meals are scratch-made and fresh from ingredients at the local market.  Just look at the herb plate you get with each meal when you order food at a VN restaurant here:  it speaks for itself.  People are just beginning to accept instant powdered coffee there.     There is no Sandra Lee and semi-homemade industry there.  It's too under-developed as a country.

scott.reitz
scott.reitz moderator

@Guest Bones may be cheap but labor isn't. Neither is the gas it takes to fire a burner all day and night. In other cities the concept I describe is thriving. I think Dallas is ready for it too. We'll see.

scott.reitz
scott.reitz moderator

@FatCap@scott.reitz"We need other authentic dishes too. We need recipes that lean heavily on fish sauce, shrimp paste, chilies and other ingredients that make Vietnamese food truly authentic. We need curries that aren't offered in hotness levels of one through five, but are instead simply spicy, because that's how they're served in Vietnam."

joe.tone
joe.tone moderator

Not true! Only, totally true.

Guest
Guest

@scott.reitz

As an aside, the Brits were racist jackasses to the Indians, and the French treated my people (it wasn't that long ago) like they were animals.  Worse than animals.  But yes, the colonizers brought cultural exchange and primitive forms of globalization along with their imperialism and racism. 

Since they are probably reading:  here's a summary:  Vietnamese-Americans, at least the first generation, are essentially a homeless people.  Their home was taken away from them by the French, Japanese and communists.  All they wanted was independence and freedom, which they enjoyed for only 5-6yrs.

To make the food that resonates authenticity and shows respect for the culture, these women need to understand who the people that make this food are -- not just go on a two week vacation and learn how to say "1,2,3."  At the very least, they need to wikipedia Vietnamese culture and history - that's free, fascinating and heartbreaking.  Know the people whose culture you are replicating.     

I can't apologize if I sound harsh, because these ladies put themselves out there, by making bold proclamations about what authentic Vietnamese food is when there is an active Vietnamese community in DFW.  Chang captivated Koreans AND Americans and generated pride for BOTH countries because he understands Korean culture as an American.  

(This is why fusion by 99% of all chefs NEVER works - they have no idea what traditions/flavors they are bastardizing.)

Otherwise, the work these ladies create will be just mimicry, like the ramen I see all over town. 

scott.reitz
scott.reitz moderator

@Guest @scott.reitz @whocareswhatithink 

From the food history I've studied (and I'm most versed in Indian if we're talking ethnic cuisine) the ingredients and thus the techniques that shape a cuisine are most closely rooted to access to ingredients and trade history and cultural influence. (what would vietnamese cooking be today without the French) Having access to abundant spices and aromatics has just as much influence as poverty -- which drives the truly most delicious foods.

Really, this discussion is a very complex one that is hard to distill down in internet comments.

Here's hoping the women at Good 2 Go can channel their inner Chang. I'll have something lovely to write about, and we'll all eat well, which is what we're all hoping for.

Thanks for the well thought out comments. Please keep reading and writing them.

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