After traveling to Vietnam and exploring the country on motorcycles, chef-restaurateurs Jeana Johnson and Colleen O'Hare of Good 2 Go Taco fame decided to bring Northern Vietnamese cuisine to a landmark location in Lakewood. Now, one year after opening, Mot Hai Ba is going strong.
Alongside the massive bowls of pho, the national dish of Vietnam, you'll find more inventive dishes like shaking beef or pork caramelized in soy and palm sugar. In the following interview, the duo talk about growing pains, their best moments, and what's to come following Mot Hai Ba's first year in business.
First things first, major congratulations on opening up yet another extremely successful restaurant in Mot Hai Ba. How was the first year?
Jeana: Our first year has been awesome. We've been received really well by the neighborhood, and we've already got a strong force of regulars. Not just see-you-next-week regulars, more like see-you-in-a-few-days type of regulars. We've definitely had our share of first year growing pains and ups and downs but relatively, it's been great.
What are some of those ups and downs that stick out in your mind? Anything that's been really difficult to deal with in the first year?
Jeana: Sorry I'm doing all the talking but…
Colleen: You usually do.
Jeana: It's true. We had to fight the stigma of being in the space that York Street used to be in. When you hear people talk about York Street and reminiscing about what it was, the story is always about the building, "that tiny little place over in Lakewood."
Colleen: People think it's still just as hard to get into as it was when it was York Street. I worked here when it was York Street 12 years ago, and this space has carried that stigma. We're like, we don't take reservations, you just come on in!
Jeana: Having patio weather helps. We had a pretty crappy winter between the power outages and ice apocalypse and all that, the same stuff that everyone else dealt with. Being the brand new place and people looking at our restaurant and thinking that because the patio is closed, and there's only 30 seats, you're going to have to wait in a long line outside in the cold. We've had to dispel that myth.
[Photo: Garrett Hall/EDFW]
Was it difficult to transition from running one restaurant to two? Especially since they're so different?
Jeana: Lucky for us, we have an amazing staff at Good 2 Go. They're very self-sufficient, they've been doing it a long time together. It's a unified crew. Our kitchen manager-slash-overall guy to see about whatever, Esteban, makes it really easy on us to be over here.
Colleen: If we didn't have him, it would be a whole different story.
It seems like a lot of cards have fallen in your favor in the last few years. Do you feel lucky to have found such success?
Jeana: We do, it's amazing. To have one successful restaurant is amazing and now we have this fledgling, possible success? We're 363 days in, and so far, it looks like we're probably going to stay open. Which is awesome.
Everybody has given you guys glowing reviews for the food here. Do you think that means that people are breaking out of their bubbles and coming to Lakewood to try this new, exciting place?
Jeana: We do have a lot of guests who come in and say "I don't think I like Vietnamese food, but my wife is dragging me here." They're assuming that we have these weird wacky animal parts that you usually don't eat, whereas we chose the things that were the most approachable for us as American tourists. We're bringing a lot of dishes that many people haven't seen.
Do you think that you were filling a need, coming to Lakewood with Vietnamese food?
Jeana: No, I think you're giving us a little too much credit. This building looks just like the buildings in Vietnam. The all-glass front, the shotgun interior. In Hanoi, there was a law passed years ago that owners paid taxes on their storefronts, so everyone's storefront is microscopic, and they're really long buildings. We were actually about to open a completely different restaurant over on the other side of the lake, and this building came up. It just sort of fell into our laps.
Colleen: And we were like, high speed lane change! [Let's] open a Vietnamese place.
[Photo: Garrett Hall/EDFW]
So it was really the building that drove that decision?
Jeana: Yeah, the building and the trip we took. Vietnamese food was absolutely on our radar. We had just gotten back from our first trip to Vietnam about a year and a half prior to opening Mot Hai Ba and had been experimenting and trying out dishes. Once we laid eyes on this building, we both just sort of knew that this place would be a perfect Mot Hai Ba, no question.
Has it been easy to stick to your original vision for the restaurant? I know that you originally just wanted to serve pho at lunch as it is traditionally done in Vietnam, but now it's offered at dinner. Was that because of customer demand?
Jeana: If enough people ask for a grilled cheese, we'll do it. We made that decision during those slow months when we were looking for those things to put a butt in a seat. As hard-headed, as very specific as we wanted to be that this is northern Vietnamese food, we're not serving ramen or anything outside of it. We have to save face and do it exactly that way, or we won't be a legit Vietnamese restaurant. Coming from that viewpoint, I absolutely did not want to serve put pho on the dinner menu. But, you know, you've gotta give the people what they want.
Colleen: A lot of it is to be true to the way it is in Vietnam, but it's really difficult for our kitchen to produce both the pho and the [rest of the] menu. If you know about it, it's not written on the menu, [but] you can get it. But we're not advertising it.
Jeana: We keep the pho broths at a very low simmer on the stove. We have a six-burner stove, and on a Friday or Saturday night, if I'm only working off 3 burners, it's the worst nightmare.
[Photo: Robert Strickland/EDFW]
Now that Mot Hai Ba has been open for a year and things are getting more settled, there have been some menu changes. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Jeana: We actually just changed the menu in the first week of April. We were just sort of ready to do something different. Our regulars were looking for new things to try. For a couple of weeks leading up to the change we ran everything as a special first to try it.
Colleen: Over the year, we listened to people and asked what they wanted. We looked at what they were eating, and more of a communal dining experience is what came from that. It made sense with the communal seating.
Jeana: We just put on a quail dish. When we were traveling, we went to a place called the Perfume Pagoda. You have to really want to go there, it's an hour trip by rowboat down a river and it's sort of like the "Mecca" of Vietnam. There are hundreds of prayer temples.
When we got off the boat, our eyes bugged out of our head at all of the wild game that was everywhere. When we walked in, there was a whole deer hanging at the entry. When we left, there was a deer head, a spine, and one leg. They were just taking it off in pieces as they were cooking it.
Colleen: And there was wild boar, little birds, all of these game that were hanging by hooks that people could choose from just along the street stalls. We never thought about there being wild game in Vietnam.
Do you think that those ingredients surprise people when they normally think of traditional Vietnamese food?
Jeana: Sure. Another thing that sort of sets us apart and maybe gives us an out in the guest's mind is, and I'd be risky here, and say that well over 90% of the Vietnamese restaurants in Dallas are run by people from southern Vietnam. To be doing northern Vietnamese food, it's just as different food is here, like deep dish pizza in Chicago and Philly cheesesteaks in Philadelphia. Their food is wildly different, and we get to play a little. When people are caught off guard, the instantaneous answer is: This is from the north, it's different.
Did you know that before you went to Vietnam? What did you know about the country and Vietnamese food before you traveled there?
Jeana: No. Before we went on the motorcycle trip the first time, we went to a bunch of different Vietnamese restaurants around to try dishes and figure out what we liked. When I go, I'm going to ask for this dish, I'm going to say it in Vietnamese, and I'm going to be ready. When we got there, none of that shit was on the menu. We were just sort of dumb tourists saying "Bring on the Vietnamese food!"
We had ostrich at one restaurant, and it was presented in this stir fry. Our tour guide said, "The first person to identify this meat gets a shot of vodka," and I had no clue. He said, "You're the chef, you should know!" We went through all different kinds of meat — kangaroo, whatever, and still didn't come up with it.
Colleen: We never saw one single thing from back home. We had no idea. We were eating all kinds of crazy stuff. It doesn't help that all the meats were cut the same way. They all looked alike.
[Photo: Robert Strickland/EDFW]
Now that you two have dominated the taco world and you're perfecting Vietnamese food, what's next? Are you going to travel somewhere new and decide to perfect their cuisine?
Jeana: At this point, opening a new restaurant would just be like getting a third job. No big plans, but I would absolutely love a little travel in the near future. We were supposed to go to Vietnam in January of this year. But lucky for us, January was just an amazing, badass, killer month. So we had to cancel our trip, we were too busy to go. But it was for the best possible reason. But I'd like to get out there pretty quick and do an expanded view of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, China. We've still only seen three-quarters of the country of Vietnam.
What about the future for this space? What do you see for Mot Hai Ba in 5 years?
Jeana: I feel like we've just sort of touched the tip of the iceberg with what we can do here. There are a lot of very surprising things that the country of Vietnam has to offer that I feel like Colleen and I can be sort of guides in that way.
Colleen: Even as how we've integrated ourselves into this community. What we've learned from Vietnamese people who live here.
Has the local Vietnamese community been accepting of the food that you're making here?
Jeana: Yes. We have a lot of Vietnamese regulars. Which, to me, was just flooring. All the reviews and critical acclaim is something that every restaurateur desires and goes after. But for me, when a Vietnamese person comes in and they say "Thank you for honoring our country in the way that you do. I know that what you're doing is not easy." That to me is a far bigger compliment and accomplishment. For someone to say, "You make this bigger than my grandma." When someone comes in and compliments the legitimacy of "I don't know how you two white chicks are doing it, but you're doing great." That is awesome.
Was that something you were afraid of, not being accepted by the Vietnamese community?
Colleen: I think we just thought Vietnamese people just wouldn't come here. We didn't really think about how political it could be or scandalous, we just wanted to start a restaurant.
[Photo: Garrett Hall/EDFW]
So what's the funniest thing that's happened since you opened? Like mishaps or ridiculous things happening?
Oh, we have a major fuck up every day. There's some shit that hits the fan every day. It's become not funny. When we were first starting out, maybe it was "Oh, I've let the pho broth boil again!" but now it's just annoying. There's always some brand new thing that surprises me.
Colleen: [Our employee] Hector shocked himself really bad one day. It's like a cavalcade of things — what's going to happen today? But mostly kitchen hijinks, nothing really on the guest side.
But it seems like you both are taking it in stride.
Jeana: Well, you have two options. You can either let all this crazy stuff build up and make you batshit crazy, one of those yelling and screaming chefs that hates everyone. Or you can just take it with a grain of salt and say, "Yep, welcome to the crazy life that is opening your own restaurant." At least we've got each other to play off of.
And it seems like Colleen is sort of the calming influence around here.
Jeana: Sure. I can look at Colleen in the middle of service and she gets it. In 10 years, I've only ever seen Colleen mad maybe 3 times. She's got a good stronghold on her emotions.
Colleen: But when it happens, it's like lid off.
Jeana: Oh, when it happens, then I get scared. I say everyone just start running. Y'all have fun, I've gotta go.
— Amy McCarthy