Excuse me, ma'am, is your car parked out front?"
On my first visit to MoPho, a concerned server rushed to my table not long after I was seated. In my haste to get inside and snag a bowl of pho, I had parked in the wrong lot and was about to get towed (the nearby Burger King is pretty territorial). I quickly moved my car, and when I returned my server let out a sigh of relief that I had narrowly skirted disaster.
"Thank goodness," she said. "We wouldn't want your meal ruined by that!"
This level of concern for the quality of one's dining experience extends throughout all aspects of a dinner at MoPho, from the slick, urbane decor and thoughtful staff to the finely tuned dishes, each full of happy surprises.
There's no shortage of New Orleans restaurants offering creative spins on Asian-inspired food, but chef Michael Gulotta's fresh approach to familiar ingredients ensures MoPho won't be pigeonholed. Located in a strip mall near City Park, MoPho has found a way to take a bare-bones space and make it feel breezy and polished, with a tangerine and royal blue palette that adds a color-blocked kick and contemporary feel. Yes, the requisite trendy metal-and-wood accents are there, but you also might wind up eating your meal to the tune of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by the post-punk band Bauhaus. It's this playful push-and-pull between the expected and the unexpected that makes MoPho such a success.
Gulotta goes to great lengths to provide a dining experience suited to all price points and levels of engagement, with MoPho's tasting menu and happy hour both under-the-radar standouts. The happy hour (3 p.m.-6 p.m. weekdays) features a $5 rum punch dolled up with house-made five-spice and mint liqueurs, as well as the restaurant's popular chicken wings marked down to half-price: sticky, crispy jewels of meats capped off with the herbal flair of lemongrass. Red curry turnips ($3) are an unexpected star of the happy hour, turning chunks of the humble vegetable into a vehicle for the sweet-meets-savory combination of coconut milk-based curry, cashews and crumbled banana chips (which Gulotta proves can be far more than a lunchbox snack).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the chef's tasting menu ($55) is a five-act play of perfectly complimentary flavors, with accompanying wine pairings that are a steal (read: heavy pours) for $20. The menu items — which also can be ordered a la carte — mesh the exotic and the familiar. Grilled fermented pork jowl comes paired with a starchy plantain cake that perfectly offsets the meat's salty decadence. Fried soft-shell crab is delicate and supported by a complex, earthy fermented (notice a trend?) black bean jus. The well-executed balance between tender and hearty is similarly reflected in the crab's stellar wine pairing — a 2010 Scholium Project Midan al-Tahrir — which has a taste that's heavy on the honey and stone fruit notes for a white wine. It's unexpectedly sumptuous without sliding into saccharine territory.
On the "specials" menu, grilled beef ribs (supplied by Two Run Farm) reimagine a summertime cookout favorite, with crunchy rice that pops and crackles like Rice Krispies against the tender, fall-off-the-bone meat and the acidic punch of lime. Across the board, it's the playful color and textures in MoPho's dishes that make each course feel like a new adventure, from the flash-fried P&J oysters with tangy pickled blue cheese to fruity bursts of lychee alongside traditional tapioca pearls in the bottom of a boozy boba tea.
The off-the-beaten path menu items get complicated when attempting to assemble the perfect pho using MoPho's build-your-own system. Diners can end up overwhelmed when posed with decisions like, "Does head cheese pair better with cock's comb or oxtail?" It would behoove the restaurant to offer a few pre-assembled, go-to pho combinations of meat and greens (pork shoulder, shallots, and head cheese is a solid bet), which would satisfy those less eager to get inventive with their protein pairings while giving more adventurous diners a chance to play with their food.
MoPho's po-boys are promising and creative on paper, but when plated their abundance of riches is almost too rich. This is particularly true of the sloppy roast duck, which overwhelms the sandwich's lighter, greener elements when paired alongside the spicy pork pate.
From a casual lunch to a multi-course affair, MoPho is a wholly whimsical experience, with every dish and diner cared for with an unusual degree of warmth and detail.