If you watched Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race” in 2015, chances are you rooted for our local entry, Pho Nomenal Dumpling Truck. You may even have previously sampled some of the truck’s namesake dumplings or Vietnamese noodle soup back when it was called Dump Pho King, before getting a new name for the show.
Even if you weren’t already a fan, you couldn’t help catching the infectious sense of fun of owners Sunny Lin and Sophia Woo, who had met as high school students at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics. Sure, this was a national competition with a $50,000 prize at the end of the road, but these young women (and mutual friend Becca Ruffin, who joined them for the duration of the show) were just a couple of BFFs having a great time.
And danged if they didn’t win the whole thing. “That was fun,” you could almost picture them saying when they were handed the prize check. “Now what?”
Brick and mortar, that’s what. Lin and Woo decided to put the prize money toward realizing the dream of many a food truck owner: opening a restaurant. They teamed up with Matt Kenner, whose Bunch of Fives Co. includes The Anchor Bar, Milk Bar, and Southern Charred BBQ, and opened MOFU Shoppe in City Market in July. The name, fittingly, is a bilingual portmanteau of MO (English slang for “more”) and FU (Chinese for “fortune”) — or, as the website elaborates, “more food, more fun.”
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“More fun” was clearly a guiding principle in the restaurant’s layout and urban-rustic design, from the lofted second floor seating overlooking the main dining room to the cushy couches and communal table hewn from a single tree. In fair weather, garage doors on the front of the restaurant can be opened, transforming the dining room into what Lin calls an “indoor patio.”
The bar gets into the spirit of things with an offering that includes sparkling wines by the glass, a separate sake selection and specialty cocktails with cheeky names like Hot Tammy (a potion pairing Don Q rum and apple brandy, amped up with ghost pepper honey, that’s as racy as its name).
The menu is as playfully eclectic as the liquid offering, leaning to Asian flavors but frequently venturing into East-West fusion territory. The lone purely New World entry, buttermilk-fried flounder tacos, are the contribution of chef Andrew Schaumann, former owner/operator of the Sol Tacos food truck. Schaumann joined the team to help his friends get MOFU up and running, and recently left to focus on a project of his own.
Matt Greiner, who was formerly executive chef at Vivace and more recently worked in the kitchen at Crawford and Son, stepped in and took over without missing a beat. At least for now, he’s working with the menu he inherited, though he’ll likely tweak the taco offering in deference to his predecessor once Schaumann’s venture is up and running. Until then, you can still find out why The Sol Taco (as it’s listed on the menu) is a best seller at MOFU.
Another favorite, and rightly so, is a small plate offering of honey Sriracha Brussels sprouts, riddled with crunchy shards of pork belly and scattered across a puddle of cracked white pepper sour cream. And if the sweet and sour octopus bowl isn’t a best seller, it should be. A modern riff on a Southeast Asian hot-and-cold salad, the dish serves up tender morsels of its namesake ingredient in ample portion for sharing, along with cabbage edamame slaw, roasted peppers and crispy broad beans on a bed of coconut rice, the whole thing showered with a jewel-toned patchwork of microgreens.
Fans of the Lin and Woo’s food truck won’t find pho on the current menu, but until the truck hits the road again (tentatively planned for sometime in 2018), they can indulge in an order of pork and chive dumplings in the restaurant.
MOFU wings — a culinary mashup of Korean twice-fried technique, Japanese panko crust and Vietnamese-inspired sauces (fish sauce and Sriracha-based) — are a winning shareable starter. So are Thai green curry mussels served with Chinese yo tiao fried bread (think cruller, but savory).
The tacos are listed under the Large Plates heading, but they’d make a first-rate shared starter (they come three to an order, with a side of veggie-spangled fried rice that’s worthy in its own right). If you do opt to share, you may well find your palate primed for the other Latin American outlier on the menu: chimichurri steak. Grilled to order, sliced and tumbled onto the plate with roasted potatoes and mushrooms, rosy slabs of flank steak (you did order it medium-rare, didn’t you?) are topped with chimichurri sauce and — surprise! — an egg yolk encased in a delicate fried wonton wrapper.
If, on the other hand, you’d rather explore the menu’s dominant Asian theme, then the five-spice duck — served with an umami-laden enoki mushroom cake and red wine-macerated “drunken” cherries — won’t let you down. Nor will gochujang chicken pasta, a recent addition to the menu that fuses Italian and Korean flavors in a gochujang-spiked tomato sauce.
Grilled N.C. swordfish with lemon sushi rice risotto, kimchi salsa and a warm pork belly vinaigrette came close to the mark when I ordered it, marred only by a smallish piece of fish for the price ($22). I’m inclined to chalk that one up to anomaly, given MOFU’s otherwise generous portions and the kitchen’s generally high level of execution.
The only other near miss I encountered — so near that it almost feels like quibbling to point it out — was a vegetarian entree listed as “roasted king trumpet mushroom.” While each component of the presentation — which includes smoked bok choy, cauliflower gratin, grilled corn succotash and a gochujang demiglace — was skillfully executed, the sheer number and variety of those components overwhelmed the mushroom that I had looked forward to as the star of the dish. A little too much MOFU on the plate, you might say.
But then I had the Vietnamese coffee mousse for dessert. Served in a glass mug so that you could see the layers of pale mousse and dark chocolate Kahlua pecan crumble topping mimicking the layers of coffee and evaporated milk in a traditional Vietnamese coffee, it was what I’d call just the right amount of MOFU.
321 S. Blount St., Raleigh
Cuisine: Asian fusion
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: urban rustic
Noise level: moderate
Service: friendly, knowledgeable and attentive
Recommended: honey Sriracha Brussels sprouts, wings, octopus bowl, Sol tacos, chimichurri steak, five spice duck, Vietnamese coffee mousse
Open: Lunch Tuesday-Saturday, dinner Monday-Saturday
Reservations: accepted for parties of six or more
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking on street, in the Blount Street deck, and in the lot behind City Market.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.
New Year’s Eve Boodle Fight
MOFU Shoppe is hosting a Boodle Fight/Boodle Night New Year’s Eve starting at 7:30 p.m. The “boodle fight,” as the restaurant owners describe, is a “Filipino Military tradition where a feast is placed on a long table lined with bamboo leaves and every participant, regardless of rank or file, stand shoulder to shoulder and eat together as a symbol of camaraderie, brotherhood and equality.” In the “fight,” diners eat with their hands. Look for suckling pigs, roasted duck, grilled lamb, octopus, squid, shrimp and whole fishes, cheeses, traditional Asian desserts, fruits and chocolates along with drinks made from Boodles Gin.
After dinner, there will be more drinks, a DJ at 9 p.m. and champagne toast. Tickets are limited for the Boodle Fight. The New Year’s Eve festivities don’t require a ticket.