Luu Ta is busy. After moving to Charlotte 15 years ago, she started a career as the business administrator for her husband's internal medicine office, Dr. Tang Ta, on Central Ave. Then she opened a jewelry store in 2000. But for the past two years, she has entrenched herself in the restaurant business. Her first acquisition was in September 2004 when she bought the well-established (1990) and credentialed Lang Van Vietnamese Restaurant on Shamrock from its founding owner No Duong, who moved to California.
Then in February 2006, Ta began a partnership with local restaurateur Be Phan (Café Saigon, Saigon Café, Be's Cafe), becoming co-owner of the Mama Fu's Asian House franchise on Woodlawn Road. This fast-casual Asian fusion concept is from Raving Brands, which owns several concepts including Moe's Southwest Grill. Originally, Ta intended to remain a co-owner; however, last May, Ta took over full ownership of both Mama Fu's and Phan's other restaurant, Be's Café on Montford Drive. Ta renamed the latter establishment My Lan Vietnamese-Thai Cuisine.
My Lan is located in a small red brick building that ironically started out as a restaurant in 1959 but has held numerous businesses since. The interior of My Lan is a vibrant offbeat mixed palette of blues, greens, violets, oranges and yellows. Plastic bamboo climbs the walls punctuated with comfortable booths. A small bar area is across from the main entrance, which leads from the parking lot, not the sidewalk. Unfortunately, the building is the kind of set-back spot you can easily drive by.
My Lan's menu features Vietnamese dishes with a few Thai dishes. Vietnamese dishes embrace clean herbaceous flavors such as basil and cilantro while Thai dishes tend to be more fiery. But, both cuisines balance the five "flavors": sour, salty, sweet, hot, and bitter. Herbs give Vietnamese food its special character. Both Vietnamese and Thai cuisines heavily rely on the trained palate of the cook to create a tapestry of textures and flavors.
The kitchen is manned by a Honduras cook who gained hands-on Thai cuisine experience while working in a Charlotte Thai restaurant. The menu is written in English and offers the better known Vietnamese and Thai dishes such as pho, crepes (yellow pancake), curries, and stir fries. Ta has added items to the menu, and plans to add more. She is considering pan-Asian, including Japanese. Currently, My Lan's menu does not over reach into fussiness or pretension but remains stylized southeast Asian.
The shrimp lettuce wrap is a marvelous appetizer with grilled whole shrimp, slightly difficult to maneuver into a green lettuce leaf, but once there is happily dunked into a chili-enhanced hoisin sauce. The soft spring rolls, with the shelf life of five minutes, are the true heart of the starter portion of the menu. Soups are equally well done: the white asparagus soup is chock-full of crab tendrils and lightly spiked with cilantro.
The entrée flavors are more restrained, which is not surprising given the Vietnamese help-yourself-to-herbs-and-spices attitude. Criticizing this would be like noting a dish didn't have enough salt in an American diner when the salt shaker is right in front of you; however, the pad Thai lacked the necessary tamarind zing that makes this stir fry so popular. The duck entrée, with a splash of honey and orange, is one of Ta's newly introduced dishes. But the duck breast filet could use less time in the sauté pan since the overcooking toughened it.
Prices are down slightly since Be's. Most dinner appetizers are $5; soups are $5 to $8, and the entrees range from $10 for vegetarian curry to $19 for shaking beef, although most entrees are $15 or less. The pho ($8) is south Vietnamese style. Come lunchtime, entrées run $8 or less.
What people don't like about restaurants is the fact they change -- hence the popularity of chains. But restaurants -- even chains -- are similar to performance art. Unlike a recorded song you can listen to over and over again, restaurants are live concerts with some nights better than others. Restaurants change hands; chefs move on or grow tired; menus change; servers leave. This is not a static business. Will Ta change the menu here? Probably. But change is a welcomed and natural occurrence.
Although May is the official national barbecue month, October holds a special place in a Carolina cue lover's heart. Two not to be missed barbecue events are coming up. The first is the 23rd Annual Lexington Barbecue festival in Lexington, of course, held Saturday, Oct. 21. In addition to food, there is "Pigs in the City III", an art project; running (for their lives, I suspect) pigs on Main Street; and the special release Fine Swine Wine from Childress Vineyards. Winemaker Mark Friszolowski will sign bottles from 9 a.m. until 10 a.m. www.barbecuefestival.com.
The 77th annual Mallard Creek Bar B Cue is Thursday, Oct. 26 from 10 a.m. "til we run out." Dine in or drive through. This is the quintessential barbecue fundraiser/political campaigning event in Charlotte and the oldest. The $9 barbecue plate includes South Carolina-styled Brunswick stew (which has rice), and apple sauce. Barbecue is also available by the pound. These folks host a well organized event and the drive-through moves quickly. www.mallardcreekpresbyterian.org.
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