Mot Hai Ba Chef Jeana Johnson Did R&D in Vietnam, with Help from a Dude Named Dragon
Jeana Johnson and Colleen O'Hare are the proprietors of the little hot spot in East Dallas, Mot Hai Ba, as wells as Good 2 Go Taco. Their culinary trail winds far and wide through the Dallas landscape. Collectively, the pins on their map include Ciudad, Daddy Jack's, The Standard in Deep Ellum, The Green Room, Stephan Pyles, York Street, Good To Go Taco, Goodfriends and Acme F&B, as either cooks, chefs, owners or all three.
Jeana Johnson and Colleen O'Hare
In between all of that, the girls have found a little time for vacation, including a motorcycle trip through Vietnam. Recently we chatted with Jeana Johnson about their travels, their tour guides Dragon and Phouc, the Vietnamese yard-to-table movement and snotty broth.
Was this your first trip to Vietnam?
We have been twice. The first time in April of 2011, we went for a motorcycle trip. Started in Hanoi then drove south to really small villages and basically switched back and forth, west and east, across the country for a few weeks.
Did you have a guide?
Catherine Downes The Market Crab served at Mot Hai Ba.
Yes, this guy named Dragon, who learned to speak English by listening to heavy metal music.
So you hit the small spots in different villages?
Most of the places we ate for lunch were three walls and a garage door and a little lady in the back cooking. A lot of times it was like, "We'll have the chicken." Then, you look out and there's one less chicken running around.
Brings farm-to-table to a whole other level, huh?
It does. I think the Vietnamese people would laugh their asses off at our farm to table movement. No one really even has a refrigerator there.
What surprised you the most about the food?
We weren't as struck as much by what we ate as we were by how different it is from the Vietnamese food we have here. We were predominantly in the north and central part of Vietnam; we only spent four days below the demilitarized zone. We were expecting this really saucy food, but we ate ribs everyday. And ostrich, goat breast, an unidentifiable forest animal at a place called the Perfume Pagoda. When we got there it was a whole animal hanging there. By the time we left it had a head, one leg and a spine.
So, your most recent trip was more purpose driven?
Yes, the second trip was strictly for R&D. We got this space in February and were back in Vietnam in March of this year for nine days. We hooked back up with Dragon from the first trip.
How was Dragon?
Good. He actually got married while we were there.
Did you go to the wedding?
We were invited, but our Facebook got cut off after a couple of days and so we didn't have a way to find it.
Why was your Facebook shut down?
The communist government there. They don't like the Facebook.
Did you do a Facebook check-in in Hanoi and the government tagged you?
Something like that. It was funny though, Dragon originally wasn't going to be there when we were there, but then he had a change of plans, to get married, and we just happened to run right into him walking down the street.
Wait, you didn't plan on meeting him, you just ran into the only person you know in a country on the other side of the world?
Well, we wrote him before to tell him we were coming, but he told us he was going to out of town, but that all changed. So, he happened to be in town, but we didn't know. And we ran right into him on the street. We had a beer and lunch. It was great because he introduced us to a dish that we would have never had if we hadn't met him.
What was it?
It's called banh cuon, which is a rice pancake with pork, mushrooms and shallots rolled up into and is dipped into a broth. Philly is known for cheese steak, Hanoi is known for banh cuon.
He made a list of every other place to go after that. He also helped us get a lot of other things that were almost impossible to get otherwise, like we wanted to get a banh cuon pan and when we would try to buy one people would look at us like we were crazy and really inflate the price. So, he set us up with this other guy who helped us with that, whose name was David. Well, his real name was Phouc [fuhk], but he changed it to David.
That's just what he called himself. He's also a tour guide, so he's around English speakers all day.
Phouc could be a really catchy gimmick if he were an industrious tour guide.
I think he probably got tired of the jokes.
Yeah, like, "What the fuck, Phouc?"
Are you drawn to the Vietnamese lifestyle? Other chefs I've met that have been there love it (like the Wages at Malai).
I think it's perfect for people in the restaurant business. It's all work hard/play hard. The country operates in this sort of organized chaos. For example, when you head into a town on a motorcycle, you won't see a stop light through the entire city. You just go. And don't hit your breaks. And it works. It's perfect. I love it.