Mai’s Restaurant, located on the edge of downtown at 3402 Milam Street, was established in 1978 by Phin and Phac Nguyen. Mai is the name of one of their eight children, and it was chosen for the restaurant’s name based on its ease of pronunciation. It was also chosen for its symbolic meaning — Mai means “golden flower,” which represents prosperity and luck. When her parents retired in 1990, the restaurant was handed over to Mai. In 2010, the restaurant was destroyed by fire. The restaurant was rebuilt on the same property, where it continues to serve up Vietnamese food to loyal patrons in an attractive setting accentuated with celadon walls and seat cushions.
Vietnamese food is currently enjoying popularity in Houston, with scores of Vietnamese restaurants around the city, no longer confined to Asian communities. Vermicelli bowls, pho, and banh mi sandwiches are familiar and inexpensive meals. But when Mai’s opened its doors in 1978, Vietnamese food was not nearly as well known, and was even considered a little adventuresome. Many Houstonians–myself included–had their first taste of Vietnamese cuisine at Mai’s.
A popular appetizer for sharing is the Goi Cuon Ga–two spring rolls stuffed with vermicelli, lettuce, bean sprouts, and grilled chicken, served with peanut dipping sauce.
Grilled Chicken Spring Rolls
The Cha Gio–four fried Vietnamese eggrolls–is another popular appetizer, and comes with lettuce leaves and fresh herbs to wrap around the crispy little treats, before dipping them in the accompanying fish sauce-based dipping sauce:
The extensive menu has lots of options, including stir fries, vermicellis, and of course, pho, but for my family, two dishes on the menu reign supreme. The first is Bo Luc Lac, also known as Garlic Beef, and is one of Mai’s signature dishes. It consists of tender cubes of seasoned and marinated filet mignon, stir-fried with garlic, onion, bell pepper, and jalapeno, and served over a bed of lettuce and tomato with a lime-jalapeno vinaigrette dressing, accompanied by a side dish of rice. You can add broccoli, asparagus, snow peas, and mushrooms to the mix (which I highly recommend) for $3 apiece, or $9 for all four. The colorful dish is large enough to share among several people, who will undoubtedly end up fighting over the soft cloves of garlic hiding among the vegetables.
The other dish is Vietnamese Fajitas, which falls into the category of what I call interactive food. First, a large bowl of warm water (not for finger washing!) and a dish of dry rice paper wrappers arrives. This is followed by a large platter of thinly-sliced grilled meats (we prefer the pork and flank steak combo) topped with fried onions, scallions, and toasted peanuts over pressed vermicelli, accompanied by a pile of fresh vegetables and herbs including romaine lettuce leaves, sliced cucumber, shredded carrots, bean sprouts, mint, cilantro, and basil. To make your “fajita,” you briefly dip the rice paper in the water to soften it, then pile your ingredients on, and roll it up like a burrito. There’s dipping sauce, too, if you so desire.
As much as I love these dishes, I am sorry to say that this is not the place to go for pho. There are many other Vietnamese restaurants around that do it better, such as Pho Saigon. Stick to the specialties at Mai’s, and you’ll have a great meal.
So what’s the secret to Mai’s longevity? Above all, it’s the consistent food — fresh, fast, and reasonably priced (although not cheap). The restaurant’s hours have no doubt helped it to develop a rather unique group of loyal patrons — it’s open until 3 a.m. Monday through Thursday, and 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday (for those nights when no matter how many Jack-in-the-Box tacos you order, it just won’t kill the munchies). With the proliferation of Vietnamese restaurants in the past few years, I can’t help but wonder if the forced remodeling after the fire actually helped Mai’s to sustain its popularity. It’s a clean, comfortable restaurant, and a great place to introduce someone to Vietnamese food for the first time.