Restaurant Reviews

To Eat, Perchance to Dream

Forget the address for Mo Mong. It's easier to find a red pepper flake in a bowl of pho than to track down this two-month-old Vietnamese eatery by its street and number alone. Besides being in a tucked-away location, Mo Mong has a small, dimly lit sign, hung on the top half of the two-story building -- inconveniently high for someone peering through a windshield on a dark and stormy night.

So all you need to remember is that Mo Mong is behind Hollywood Video in Montrose. Once you're there, discovering well-prepared, upscale Asian fare is a piece of fish cake.

The words mo mong mean "to dream" in Vietnamese, and this place is the culmination of a vision long held by Toan Hoang, Mo Mong's owner and the patriarch of the family running it. Toan has wanted to open an eatery in the U.S. ever since he and his wife, Khang Ngo, moved here in 1975; they owned a successful restaurant in their native Vietnam until they left. Ngo is Mo Mong's chef, and their children, son Viet Hoang and daughter Nhung Hoang, are managers. They have mobilized an efficient staff made up of American and Vietnamese servers, proficient and affable -- and ours, in particular, was fun as heck.

Viet is solely responsible for the dreamlike decor, with its vivid, swirling colors and soothingly low lighting, and the upstairs dining room -- set high, with steep stairs -- makes you feel even more like you're up in the clouds. The space once stored props for the Tower Theater: It's a narrow channel that sat behind the stage and also housed the dressing rooms. Naturally, the restaurant has retained a dramatic feel, but one more similar to the self-consciously jazzy Asian spots that are gaining in popularity than to the gilt-edged, red-heavy rooms of older, more traditional spots. The wine list, assembled by the siblings, reaches beyond the usual house chardonnay realm -- for instance, we enjoyed a bottle of Domaine Chandon, a champagne that holds its own against the big flavors here -- and the small, select roster of meals focuses on doing one of each type of dish well rather than offering 150 variations on a beef-bowl theme.

It's the food, though, that truly sets Mo Mong apart from the average Vietnamese restaurant. Ngo's forte is sauces, from the nuoc mamenhanced dipping concoctions to the multilayered broths in slow-cooked entrees. For instance, the peanut sauce that came with the spring rolls ($3.95) (actually one large roll cut into six portions) was exemplary -- much less sweet than most, and faintly spicy, which added flavor to the generously stuffed rice-paper log without overpowering the ingredients. Along with our choice of shrimp and pork, the roll also contained the crunch of carrots and cucumbers and the soft chew of vermicelli, but in much smaller proportion to the meat than in typical versions. The rice paper was moist all the way through, and had been expertly wrapped around the fillings.

The won ton wrappers used in the pot stickers ($4.25), on the other hand, were almost too wet, but that didn't take away from the juicy squirt inside the dumplings or from the ground vegetable filling. Again, the dipping sauce was flawless, an ideal blend of ginger, chile flakes and soy, with more ginger tang than spicy bite and enough salty soy to bring out the inherent flavors of the vegetables.

Neither of those two appetizers, however, could compare to the nha trang oysters ($5.75), a surprisingly bounteous pile of deep-fried bivalves encased in a rich, crunchy batter that kept all the liquid inside until the first bite. A sharp, lemon-enhanced nuoc cham came alongside, but it was hard to stop long enough to dunk the oysters, so eager were we to get the things into our mouths.

That same addictive quality gripped us when entree time came around, especially with the curry chicken ($9.95), a soup of a meal based on an elegant curry broth, which was thin but rich, and strongly concentrated from an earlier simmering with chicken, then doubly flavored by fresh chicken pieces and plush potato halves soaked through with the ginger-infused curry. A fine example of Vietnamese home-cooking -- several representatives of which are interspersed throughout the fusion-heavy menu -- the curry could easily have fed two. And in fact, we ate our fill, along with hunks of French bread, perfect for sopping up broth, and still took half of it home.

Another familiar dish, the bo luc lac ($12.95), was as well-executed as the curry, with chunks of fillet (the menu really ought to mention this crucial fact; it simply says "tender beef") that had been marinated in a spicy red wine mixture and then sauteed until just done. Fresh tomatoes and shredded lettuce sat beneath the ten or so ounces of meat.

Tomatoes were the main attraction in Mama Khang's fish ($15.95), named after Ngo and considered to be her signature dish. And for good reason: The two batter-dipped snapper fillets were blanketed by a punchy red sauce enhanced by chiles and lemongrass. That savory sauce begged to be ladled onto rice and eaten in its entirety.

If Mo Mong faltered at all, it was with dessert. Of the limited offerings, which included a flan and ginger ice cream, only the chocolate mousse cake ($4) appealed, but it turned out to be a standard, refrigerated bakery issue of bland cake layered with nebulous creamy chocolate goo.

Otherwise, though, Mo Mong is a dream of a find.

Mo Mong, 1201 Westheimer #

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kyle Wagner