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Mai's and Van Loc revel in large similarities - and small differences

Down Milam a bit, the mood at Van Loc is more of a study in the sedate. Saltillo tile floors, natural wood trim and paneling, dimmer lighting and extra space between the tables creates a more upscale feel. The crowd reflects this quieter ambiance. Everybody seems a little more grown up, in behavior if not in actual age. And the servers tend to be more deferential -- friendly, but by no means chatty.

And it was sincerely that our young waitress on one recent visit mumbled her apologies about the hair I found in my thit kho to, or clay pot pork. I was startled by the discovery, but also faced a diner's dilemma: a favorite restaurant, a very tasty dish ... a long hair. I asked for a new serving of the pork, which was quickly proffered but was over-peppered. Ultimately, I decided to ignore the incident.

There is no fault to find, though, with Van Loc's dau hu xao xa ot, or stir-fried tofu in hot chili and lemongrass. It was brisk and breathtakingly hot with a confetti of red pepper flakes, spears of green onion, wisps of sweet-sour lemongrass and a few straw mushrooms. Equally inspired -- and equally fiery -- is the dau hu xao lan, or stir-fried tofu with curry and coconut sauce, with its gooey, yellow-brown curry tossed with lots of mushrooms, peanuts and strips of the charmingly named tree ears (a kind of mushroom that grows on a tree).

Location Info

Map

Mai's Restaurant

3403 Milam
Houston, TX 77002

Category: Restaurant > Vietnamese

Region: Downtown/ Midtown

Don't miss the canh, or thin soup. And don't let the word "thin" fool you. It's called that because of its water-based broth, which is punchy with red chile flecks, but the canh chua tom, or hot and sour shrimp soup, is full of crunchy sprouts and carrots, heady mint, tomato wedges, large arrows of celery and the pleasant surprise of whole, fresh okra. And, of course, springy, tail-on shrimp. A "small" serving was plenty as a starter for four people, along with the essential spring rolls and egg rolls.

At Van Loc, as at Mai's, the spring rolls and egg rolls are big sellers, and for good reason. Not surprisingly, there has been some cross-fertilization between the two places. Huong Nguyen, the head chef at Van Loc, cooked at Mai's before convincing her son-in-law, Jacob Johnson, to open a restaurant in 1984. Johnson, who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia where he worked as an engineer, says he had tried to escape the food business; over the years, his father had owned or operated about 15 different establishments, mostly on Houston's north side, resulting in Johnson's being "raised in a restaurant." But fate drew him back into the family business. He decided he didn't want to leave his family to take another overseas position, so when his mother-in-law suggested a jointly owned affair, he agreed.

According to Johnson, his in-laws and Mai Nguyen's family were close friends in the old country. We're lucky that both families have brought a bit of that old country to Houston.

Mai's Restaurant, 3403 Milam, 520-7684; Van Loc Restaurant, 3010 Milam, 528-6441.

Mai's:
Vietnamese egg rolls, $4.75; Summer Delight, (S) $9, (L) $13; sauteed Alaskan king crab, $9.50.

Van Loc:
spring rolls, $4; hot and sour shrimp soup, (S) $6.50, (L) $8.50;stir-fried tofu with curry and coconut sauce, $6.50.

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