Anh Bui is a chef. Period.
Sure, she’s also a grandmother, but she doesn’t have time to spend with her grandchildren outside of the restaurant.
And, yes, she sometimes takes days off, but she has no idea what to do with herself. Days off make her very unhappy, in fact.
Also, she’s a wife, but the kind who nursed her husband back from cancer with the nourishment of pho broth. He’s been in remission for 22 years.
“We know her almost exclusively through her cooking,” says Yen Bui, daughter-in-law and devout assistant to Anh.
Anh’s restaurant, MT Noodles, is an unassuming strip-mall wonder out in the depths of Brooklyn Park, the kind you’ve driven past a thousand times and perhaps haven’t thought to visit.
The restaurant isn’t a financial imperative for the family. But the family knows how crucial it is for their matriarch, Anh, to cook. She learned the craft from her mother, and now that she’s getting older, she’s beseeched her family to help her with her life’s work, as it’s not as easy as it once was. So the children and their spouses (an occupational therapist, a nurse, an IT manager, and a software engineer) all rotate shifts on their evenings and days off.
But make no mistake: There is only one chef.
“I think of her like an artist. And with artists, there is always some irrationality. Everything has to be just perfect,” says Yen. She has known her husband’s mother for “a very long time,” and yet, she simply cannot describe her mother-in-law outside of the context of the restaurant. “She’s crazy passionate about cooking, and it’s just the thing that makes her happy. She’s so good at it. It’s just what she does.”
She comes beaming out of the kitchen when she catches wind of how pleased we are with her cooking. Her smile is a marvel. A shining half moon of pride and honor.
Anh arrived in Minnesota in 1980. She was 25 and instantly got to work doing what she does best, running kitchens at Vietnamese restaurants all over town, including Vina and Vina Plus. But MT Noodles is her masterwork. She’s an artist, and her art is as taut as that of any maestro.
Named after the southerly Vietnamese city My Tho, MT maintains a menu of carefully curated Bui family favorites, from daily meals to special occasion dishes. If you’re on a constant search for the most “authentic” Vietnamese eating experience, visit here.
The crowning glory of this kitchen and seemingly everyone’s favorite preparation is the broken rice with grilled marinated pork, shredded barbecue pork, steamed egg loaf, Chinese sausage, and a shrimp in a beancurd wrap. Never heard of it? Me either.
But ask a Vietnamese grandparent about it, and their eyes just might light up.
“You can’t get it anywhere else in Minnesota,” says Michael Bui, son of Anh, IT manager by day and restaurant Jack-of-all-trades by night.
The dish is one of the reasons Vietnamese diners bypass so many other Twin Cities restaurants in order to get to MT. Something of a “home recipe,” it’s made with the type of rice named after the leftover broken pieces of rice that Vietnamese rice farmers couldn’t sell, so they ate it themselves. The shredded barbecue pork is served room temperature or almost chilled, and the Chinese sausage offers a salty edge to balance the dish.
The egg loaf, sometimes also called meatloaf, reminds me of a frittata, the eggs incorporated with a little shrimp, pork, bean thread, and scallion. It’s steamed and cut into squares; it’s eggy, fluffy, and comforting. The eggroll doppelganger at the edge of the plate is actually Tau Hu Ky, a handmade tofu crepe with an airy stuffing of minced shrimp. The price for the entirety? $12.95. And it comes out piping hot.
“If food sits for even a few minutes, it has to go,” says Yen, familiar with Anh’s admonishments to get food on the table instantly. Dine at MT for any amount of time, and you’ll become familiar with their admonishments to eat things while they’re crispy and hot.
Eat the Banh Xeo, or Vietnamese Crepe, while it is still bracingly fresh and lacy at the edges, and you’ll see why. An omelet so light you could hold it to the light and see through it like a doily obscures a light smattering of al dente shrimp and bean sprouts within. Break off a hunk, tuck it into a lettuce leaf, and finish it with a ladle of fish sauce. It’s the ideal hot-weather bite that will have you looking askance at spring rolls.
But don’t look askance too long, because at MT, you get to roll your own. A family-size portion of fresh noodles, house-made grilled pork sausage or seasoned beef rolled in betel leaf (they look like little dolmades), and a garden’s worth of fresh herbs and vegetables arrive with a little caddy: raw spring roll wrappers on one side, warm water on the other. It’s great, interactive fun. Don’t worry if you don’t know how, the crew will gladly give you a demo.
Many of the preparations are so generous they come to the table on cafeteria trays or bamboo platters instead of plates, though prices are nevertheless competitive with whatever Vietnamese restaurant you know and love. The house eggrolls are slender, two-bite affairs, eight to a plate, crackling beneath every bite. It makes your fingers ache to consider the work that goes into the daily enterprise of them.
Banh mi get a swipe of garlicky, herbaceous green butter, which I’ve never had on any other sandwich of its kind, and now I want my banh mi no other way. The fried chicken rivals any in the state, but here it comes as only one part of a more elaborate egg noodle soup with sliced pork, two kinds of broth, and a shrimp wonton, pretty as a rosette.
Every sauce is made by hand, including the ubiquitous little pot of chile oil, the shrimp paste sauce, and the plum sauce.
Even Anh’s children aren’t privy to many of the recipes, but we’re relieved to know that son Denny works by her side in the kitchen, picking up technique so it may endure.
Though the menu at MT is a refreshing and tightly focused 35 or so items long (this is not an all-things-for-all-people place), it would take a lifetime to unlock all of the secrets within.
But to do so is to unlock the secrets of an artist.
8459 W. Broadway Ave., Brooklyn Park