This Vietnamese coconut grater is one reason Malai Kitchen should be on your Go list

Dallas’ Uptown West Village area is far from an ethnic polyglot. Yet at Malai Kitchen, the small but vibrant homage to Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, husband-and-wife chefs Braden and Yasmin Wages deliver culinary authenticity in a neighborhood where few seek it.

There’s a beguiling sense that nothing’s too complicated or too simple about the cooking at Malai Kitchen, but you know that can’t be true. If you or I were to try our hand at, say, making a bowl of Thai green curry or lemongrass potstickers from scratch, no one would eat eat it. Like ballet and magic, the Wages make it look easy.

Two essential elements of successful Thai and Vietnamese cooking, Braden told me recently, is to obtain quality authentic ingredients and to use them properly. He and Yasmin learned a whole lot more secrets on research trips across Southeast Asia for their menus at Malai as well as Banh Shop, the YUM Brands fast casual Vietnamese concept they helped design.

So I wasn’t the least bit surprised when Braden popped out of the kitchen clutching what appeared to be a homemade satellite dish fashioned from an aluminum mixing bowl and a metal juice reamer. It was the kind of contraption you might see in a border town, strapped by bungee cords to an old VW.

“It’s a rotary grater I found in Vietnam,” he told me. “We wanted to make our own coconut milk, like they do in Vietnam.”

Braden says the process is simple: drain the coconut water, crack open the coconut, then ream out the inside of the coconut on the grater. The result is coconut shavings as light and flaky as snow. When soaked in the original coconut water and a bit of extra filtered water, the coconut milk is close to perfect: sweet, tropical and silken. The process is labor intensive – Braden says each coconut yields less than a cup of milk, and he goes through about 30 coconuts a day to make curries, soups and desserts.

On a ledge by the open kitchen, another device caught my eye: a tall Vietnamese cold brew coffee tower constructed of several glass elements. The top vessel holds cold water, which is slowly dripped over a coarse grind of Vietnamese peaberry coffee beans, filtered, and collected in another glass container below. The result is a smooth yet intensely flavorful coffee extract used as the base for Malai’s Vietnamese coffee.

Braden says he and his kitchen staff create nearly everything served in the restaurant from scratch, from the curries to the Sriracha-style hot sauce to three styles of house made beers brewed in four fermentation tanks located in a side room off the dining room.

Take a peak. Then take a taste. If you’ve already eaten at Malai Kitchen, then you know. If you haven’t, well, you’re probably one of those people who says there’s no good Thai food in Dallas. Consider yourself corrected.