RETRO DINING: MAI’S RESTAURANT

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.

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mai's interior

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.

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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:

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 Crispy Vietnamese Eggrolls 

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.

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Garlic Beef

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.

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Vietnamese Fajitas

So much fun to roll your own!

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.

Mai's on Urbanspoon

RETRO DINING: MOELLER’S BAKERY

Moeller’s Bakery, located at 4201 Bellaire Blvd., has been serving up delectable baked goods since 1930.

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The bakery is located in a modest, nondescript building, next to a popular bowling alley.  What the building lacks in design, however, is made up for with the vivid seasonal murals painted on the windows, such as this Easter one:

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And this tribute to the armed forces for Memorial Day:

004 (2)Inside, the bakery cases are filled with temptations of all kinds. There’s mouth-watering kolaches, rolls, and breakfast pastries:

005A variety of cookies next to delicate cheese straws:

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For a special treat, there’s beautifully iced cookies:

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The themed cakes waiting to be picked up will make you want to have a party of your own:

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Forgot to plan ahead?  There’s always a choice of cakes waiting to be decorated just for you (of course, they taste just as good unadorned):

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But the thing for which Moeller’s is known throughout the city–maybe throughout the state–is its petit fours:

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You can choose from white petit fours:

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Or chocolate petit fours:

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Moeller’s petit fours consist of a rectangle of airy cake — two or three bites’ worth — enrobed in a glaze that has the slightest crackle when you bite into it, topped with a little icing flower.  I’ve seen them at parties with custom monograms, although personally, I think the flowers are prettier.  (Monogrammed food can be kind of pretentious, don’t you think?)  The petit fours are $1.95 apiece for white, $2.35 for chocolate.  (The staff was not sure why the difference in price, just that it’s always been that way — let’s just assume it’s because they use high-quality cocoa powder.)  The bakery sells 40 to 50 dozen of these per day during the week, and 200 dozen per day on the weekends.  200 DOZEN!  Forget cupcakes and macarons — I think if anyone was paying attention, the next baking trend would be petit fours.

The secret to Moeller’s longevity is obvious to me.  Every time I enter the bakery, I become a kid again.  I want one of every cookie in the shop, and a birthday cake with my name (not my age) spelled out in bright pink icing.  I  can never decide between white or chocolate petit fours, or how many to buy, so I buy half of each and always too many, which turns out to be never enough.  I love that the ladies behind the counter call me “Honey” or “Sweetie” and are infinitely patient as I vacillate between which goodies to buy.  It’s glass display cases and white cake boxes and linoleum and baker’s twine all rolled up into a timeless Houston treasure.

 

Moeller's Bakery on Urbanspoon

Moeller's Bakery on Foodio54

RETRO DINING: NINO’S

Nino’s, located at 2817 W. Dallas, has been serving “down-home Italian” food since 1977.

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It’s the anchor of a compound of Italian restaurants owned by the Mandola family that also includes Vincent’s, Grappino di Nino, and the newest addition, La Gelateria.

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The restaurants are grouped around a charming terrace that manages to feel European without being hokey.

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The interior, with its dark wood, terrazzo floors, antique pots and pans, and hanging herbs and garlic braids, is attractive and comfortable — no plastic cheeses and prosciutto hanging from the rafters here.

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Crusty bread flecked with olives, accompanied with garlicky olive oil, arrived quickly after we were seated (and disappeared almost as quickly).

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The service was attentive without being fussy.  We started with an antipasto platter, which had a nice assortment of meats, cheeses, and vegetables — something for everyone.

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Our family ordered four entrees:

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 Pollo Arrosto

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 Veal Vincent, a house favorite

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 Snapper Nino, another house favorite

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 Chicken Scallopini Parmigiano

The entrees were nice, although underseasoned for our tastes.  Although the portions were ample, the restaurant could have been a little more generous with ingredients — the two artichokes on the Veal Vincent, for example, definitely could have used some company.

So what’s the secret to Nino’s longevity?  I think one of the reasons the restaurant remains a favorite for many people is that it has a familiar and safe menu.  Nothing intimidating or too challenging.  A place where you can go on a date, or take your kids, or grandma and grandpa, or a business colleague, and everyone has a good time.  My daughter perfectly described the restaurant as “happy.”

Nino's Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Nino's on Foodio54

RETRO DINING: NEW YORK COFFEE SHOP & HOT BAGELS

New York Coffee Shop was opened in 1978, three years after the adjacent Hot Bagels bakery opened.

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The restaurant is located in a small, dated strip shopping center at 9720 Hillcroft.  Settle into a booth and let the mauve and aqua interior transport you back to another place and time.

True to its name, the restaurant is reminiscent of a New York coffee shop.  I half expected to see Jerry, Elaine, and George sitting at one of the tables ordering a big salad and an egg white omelet.  Instead, on a recent weekday at lunchtime, the restaurant was packed mostly with senior citizens.  The service was quick, the portions were huge, the prices were reasonable, and the food was diner comfort food, with an emphasis on traditional Jewish deli specialties such as pastrami, matzoh ball soup, and lox, and, of course, bagels.

Not sure what to order?  Perhaps the larger-than-life photos of some of the menu offerings decorating the walls will help you decide:

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 While visions of bagels danced in her head?

The bagel shop is kosher, but the restaurant is not, as you can see by the generous amount of bacon on my friends’ club sandwich:

015The dish that keeps me coming back to New York Coffee Shop & Hot Bagels is the smoked whitefish salad platter.  There aren’t many places in Houston that serve this dish  (the only other one I know of is Kenny & Ziggy’s, although you can buy smoked whitefish salad at Central Market).  The platter comes with a generous scoop of whitefish salad, accompanied by a bagel of your choice and all the fixin’s (we are in Texas, after all):

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No trip to this place is complete without stopping next door and getting a baker’s dozen of fresh-baked bagels and bialys to bring home.  An assortment of flavored cream cheeses and other spreads are available, as well.  Complimentary freezer bags and twist ties are included in every sack of bagels.

So what’s the secret to this restaurant’s longevity?  Its strategic location near the Jewish Community Center and several temples probably doesn’t hurt.  The vintage coffee shop charm of the restaurant surely appeals to displaced New Yorkers and New Jerseyites.  But more likely it is the freshly-prepared deli plates, large portions, good values, and friendly service that keeps the regulars coming back.

New York Bagels on Urbanspoon
New York Coffee Shop on Foodio54

RETRO DINING: ANTONIO’S ITALIAN RESTAURANT AND FLYING PIZZA

In our excited rush to try the buzzy new restaurants that seem to open every week in Houston, we sometimes forget about some of the city’s culinary institutions — the restaurants that have endured through decades of booms and busts.  These restaurants are as much a part of Houston’s culinary landscape as those appearing on the “top ten must try now” lists.  We’re going to visit some of these long-lived restaurants (the only criteria being that they must have been in business at least 35 years, and not be a chain), to see what the secret to their longevity is.

First up is Antonio’s Italian Restaurant and Flying Pizza.

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Housed in a modest building at 2920 Hillcroft, this restaurant has been in business since 1971.

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Stepping inside is about as close to time travel as I am ever likely to come. The spotless restaurant has a retro charm, filled with polished wood, wrought iron, hanging baskets of silk plants, and cheery tablecloths.  Very 1970s.

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After placing our orders, warm crusty bread arrived, complete with foil-wrapped butter pats.

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We started with an order of stuffed mushrooms.  I used to make these back in the 1980s and 1990s, but haven’t had them in years.  Meaty, piping hot, and with a crunchy herbed  topping, they were as good as I remember.  I made a mental note to make stuffed mushrooms at home soon.

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My husband ordered the Veal Cacciatore.  Although it was not quite what he expected (he was thinking it would be a veal cutlet), it was an interesting dish with tender strips of veal, and a lot of flavor from kalamata olives, onions, tomatoes, and mushrooms.

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I ordered the Eggplant Parmigiana, because our waiter told me it was the best in Houston, which is pretty much a throwdown.  It’s hard for me to ever declare something “the best,” but this was really good.  The eggplant was thankfully not breaded and fried before being covered in sauce and cheese.  Instead, it was baked or sauteed (not sure which), and then layered, which allowed the flavor and texture of the eggplant to come through without the breading that so often ends up being gummy.  (I didn’t miss the calories from the fried breading either.)

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Both of our entrees were generously sized (enough left over for lunch the next day). The sauces were not too sweet — one of our biggest complaints with some of the Italian chain restaurants.  I liked that on each table there was salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, and grated parmesan cheese, to use as you desired — that’s something you hardly see any more.  Is it just me, or does anyone else hate having the waiter come over with a yard-long pepper mill or a bowl of grated cheese and ask if you want any?  And forget about asking for salt!

So what is the secret to Antonio’s longevity?  This was Italian comfort food — tasty, unpretentious, with a definite “made from scratch” quality.  It was not cheap, although I believe the prices were fair.  Sitting there among the silk plants, enjoying our meal with a good bottle of wine, it was a relaxed evening.  It’s a perfect place to take a family, and we look forward to returning with the kids for some “flying pizza.”

Antonio's Flying Pizza on Urbanspoon
Antonios Flying Pizza and Italian Restaurant on Foodio54