Review | Muoi Tieu in Takoma Park puts a modern spin on Vietnamese home cooking

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If you ask Thuy-Tu Tran how she ended up in the food industry, she’ll tell you she stumbled into it. The chef-owner of Muoi Tieu, a new Vietnamese spot in Takoma Park, never attended culinary school and didn’t start cooking in earnest until after college. When she tired of her nonprofit job in her early 30s, she decided it was time to switch gears and reached out to chef Deth Khaia, whom she had met through a work event. Tran only expected advice — and maybe an encouraging nod — but wound up with an offer to stage for him, or train as a sort of unpaid intern.

In 2015, she arrived to work for Khaia at Doi Moi, a buzzy destination on 14th Street NW for Southeast Asian street food, and was asked to replace the sous chef who had just put in her notice.

“The chef came in later that afternoon, pulled me aside and said, ‘She is on her way out. I’m looking for someone,’” Tran recalled. “I was like, what?! Literally the first day I’m staging at a restaurant.”

Nearly a decade later, Tran is running her own establishment. Muoi Tieu, pronounced “mooey tew,” opened its bricks-and-mortar location in January after a year of operating out of a food truck. Tran based her menu off the food she grew up eating in Minnesota with her Vietnamese mother and grandmother. The logo for Muoi Tieu, which translates to salt and pepper, pulls from the handwriting in accounting books Tran’s grandmother kept upon moving to the United States.

Muoi Tieu occupies a small space, which means dining in can require a long wait — on a weekend night, expect upward of an hour to be seated (the restaurant does not yet accept reservations). But its coziness reflects the intimacy of Tran’s menu. While she offers some staples of American Vietnamese restaurants, such as pho and summer rolls, Muoi Tieu also serves dishes that might be unfamiliar to those outside of the culture. I hadn’t previously encountered banh beo, or steamed rice cakes served with fried shallots, shrimp (or tofu) and nuoc cham, a sweet, tangy fish dipping sauce. I could smell that sauce through my pores the next morning, a lingering memory of what it was like to savor its umami flavor. Honestly, I wasn’t too annoyed by the reminder.

Another highlight? Banh xeo, a crispy, turmeric-tinged crepe made of rice and coconut milk, stuffed with pork and shrimp (or mushrooms, for a meatless option). Vegans will find plenty to eat at Muoi Tieu, which offers alternatives to nearly all its meat and seafood options — save for the braised pork belly and a pan-fried fish fillet, each served with pickled mustard greens (a must-try, if you can).

The flavorful vegan pho will defeat the skepticism of those who turn their noses up at meatless broth, a group to which Tran admitted she once belonged. There is a substantial vegan dessert option, too, in the che bau mau, a layered dessert of coconut milk, red bean, mung bean and pandan jelly. My two dining partners, both of Vietnamese heritage, were pleasantly surprised to discover they enjoyed Tran’s version of what they once considered an “old-person dessert.” A hard-earned stamp of approval.

Tran’s path from Doi Moi to Muoi Tieu swerved a bit. She spent a year at the 14th Street hot spot before the lure of stability pulled her back to her old office job. She got married and gave birth to her first child just two weeks before the pandemic hit, kicking that stability to the curb. The itch to try something new returned. In 2022, after months of taking part in a virtual cooking club and dipping her toes into the catering business, Tran learned of a food truck for sale up the street from her home in Takoma Park.

“I wanted to bring some Vietnamese food to my backyard,” she said. The closest restaurants were a 10- to 15-minute drive away. Tran hoped to introduce her neighbors to the wide array of food she grew up eating but, because of the limits of her setup, decided to specialize in banh mi instead. Tran and her handful of employees worked out of a nearby commissary kitchen and assembled the baguette sandwiches in the truck. They debuted at a holiday market, which Tran remembered being “a terrible idea.”

“The love in the community is wonderful, and people are so excited for anything new to open,” she said. “But we were absolutely crushed that night. We were one of three vendors. My team hadn’t even worked on a line before, and these poor guys cranked out 150 to 200 banh mi that night.”

They eventually got the hang of it. The truck, which served lunch a few days a week, developed a loyal following with its banh mi, bun dishes of noodles and protein, and sides of shrimp salad and vegan summer rolls. A particularly passionate admirer wrote to The Washington Post a few months ago to praise the marinated eggplant banh mi, a vegetarian alternative to the roasted chicken and braised pork belly options. This had to be one of the “best veggie banh mi” to ever be made, the reader promised, adding: “I feel confident with this vote as I’ve eaten MANY — this one will change your life.”

Last year, Tran caught wind of the fact that Mark’s Kitchen, a local Korean American dining institution, had been put up for sale. She once again found herself in the right place at the right time. She put in an offer to purchase the business — which included its name, equipment and inventoryand by late spring, owner Mark Choe had accepted. “And I was like, oh no,” Tran joked.

The four original members of the food truck crew followed Tran to the bricks-and-mortar Muoi Tieu — two as line cooks and the others as managers. The team spent the next several months making cosmetic upgrades to the space and preparing it for inspection. Tran has since hired two more line cooks, two prep cooks, some dishwashers, bussers and a handful of folks to run the front of house.

“There’s a lot we’re still figuring out,” Tran said. “My team is completely green.”

What remains consistent is Muoi Tieu’s community feel. Tran’s mother consulted on the recipes and is helping manage the restaurant in its early days. Takoma Park residents have shaped the offerings, too. While the celebrated banh mi is not offered at dinnertime, Muoi Tieu reverts to its food truck menu for brunch every Sunday. So many people have asked Tran about Vietnamese coffee that she decided to work the flavor into her luxuriously silky banh flan, a more suitable way to cap a late night.

Tran is still learning as she goes, and hopes the trust she has built with Muoi Tieu’s devoted supporters allows for more experimentation.

“I want to be able to add a couple dishes to each category and start to rotate one or two things on or off every month or so,” she said. “It’s fun for the kitchen, and fun for the guests as well.”

7006 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park, Md. 301-289-3166. muoi-tieu.com.

Hours: 5 to 8 p.m. Monday and Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

Nearest Metro: Takoma, with a 0.3-mile walk to the restaurant.

Prices: $6-$20 for all items on the food menu.

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