Everyone around me is eating tacos. The man to my right. The man to my left. The woman sitting across from him. Which means I inevitably want tacos, too. I want crispy fried flounder, charred flour tortillas, and squiggles of cilantro sour cream.
We are toward the back of MOFU Shoppe, a strikingly designed space on South Blount Street with high ceilings, exposed wooden beams, so many windows, bright white walls, dangling twinkle lights, a lofted second floor, a big bar. Near the front, a garage door blends the restaurant into the sidewalk. Couches face the open air. If people usually look lovelier in natural light, restaurants do, too. And MOFU looks stunning.
So do those tacos.
"They're good?" I ask the man to my right.
"They're great," he says.
Tacos weren't what I expected from MOFU Shoppe, the brick-and-mortar sequel to the locally—and nationally—famous Pho Nomenal Dumplings food truck. In 2015, co-owners Sophia Woo and Sunny Lin drove onto Season 6 of the Food Network's The Great American Food Truck Race and won the $50,000 prize.
Around here, fans know Pho Nomenal best for its Taiwanese pork belly spaghetti and shiitake-tofu dumplings. Though the truck is on hiatus for now, Woo says they're hoping to bring it back in 2018.
Considering the backstory, maybe I should have expected tacos. The dish's title on the menu, Sol Tacos, tells you why. MOFU's executive chef Andrew Schaumann used to run a food truck called just that before joining the Pho Nomenal team.
Some of Pho Nomenal lives on at MOFU. "Fu" means fortune in Mandarin Chinese. So, more fortune, hopefully. There are the namesake dumplings, but only with pork and chive (stay tuned for more varieties). They have crispy bottoms and arrive with two dunking sauces in tow: a bracing black vinegar-sesame, to keep all the rich flavors humble, and a "sweet and spicy" that reminded my friend and me of ketchup (he liked this, I didn't).
Beyond dumplings, MOFU's lunch and dinner menus are an ambitious departure from Pho Nomenal. The truck excelled at Asian fusion through a whimsical lens (corn dog banh mi, Cheerwine bulgogi). MOFU is sometimes whimsical. The seared shrimp cake—a rectangular slab—comes with miso ranch. Which, even elevated by miso, will always be the goofy best friend of salad dressings.
The chicken wings evoke a similar spirit. They have crispy edges and juicy meat, with two saucy options: buttery sriracha, for a trendy twist on Buffalo sauce, and nuoc cham, a Vietnamese dressing with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, garlic, and chilies.
The latter caught my eye. Fishy is having a moment right now—even fish sauce caramel is a thing (kind of like salted caramel but with umami)—and I'm all about that. Bring on the fishy! These wings, unfortunately, didn't. Too sweet, no sass.
The green curry mussels landed all the right punches. Smoky tomatoes, black garlic oil, fatty pork belly. Don't be shy about loud-slurping the broth from the mollusk shells. You can also dip the yo tiao bread—as my server described it, "Chinese fry bread, traditionally eaten for breakfast." In that case, it would be dipped in soy milk, a sweet-leaning custom that MOFU creatively recasts as savory.
If the menu has any drawback, it's the one most menus have: too much meat. Of the sixteen nondessert items, only three are vegetarian. Sticky orange cauliflower, a bok choy, pea shoot, and peanut salad, and a roasted king trumpet mushroom with a gochujang demi-glace. (Yes, the demi-glace, which usually refers to a beef stock-based, ultra-reduced brown sauce, is vegetarian. Here, it draws meatiness from mushrooms and miso.)
If the kitchen has any drawback, it's an inconsistency in cooking all that meat. When I ordered the pork chop, my server asked if MOFU's standard medium-rare was alright, and it would have been. The days of pork-must-be-cooked-to-165-degrees are over. (As food science guru J. Kenji López-Alt explains it, "These days, our pork is just as safe as our beef.")
Some parts of the chop—pale as a piglet, probably from a lukewarm pan—were indeed medium-rare. Others were rare. Others were raw, which is why I opted to send it back. The manager took the plate off the check and apologized, a lot.
Every kitchen has mess-ups. This is especially unfortunate when it's your dinner, but it's understandable when you're the line cook in the weeds. What never seems excusable is a restaurant not taking ownership of that. MOFU gracefully did.
Though the dinner menu is equally distributed between small and large plates (respectively averaging at ten and twenty dollars), the former is what excites me right now about MOFU. When you wander through that wide-open garage door, head toward the bar. Order the Wannabe Americano, with Aperol, St. Germain, and juicy muddled oranges. Or the Tokyo Mule, with plum wine, gin, ginger beer, and lime. Get a bunch of dumplings and curry mussels and sriracha chicken wings. And stay awhile. Food trucks may have a lot going for them, but they're never this beautiful.