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Dare We Say It?

The venerated Mai's has been rebuilt after burning down, and it looks pretty. But the food still mostly ­disappoints.

At the end of the meal, over a shared plate of Saigon rocky road, my friend seemed deep in thought. Finally, he spoke.

"I'm not a Mai's apologist," he said.

"Well, if you're not an apologist, then what are you?" I asked.

Regulars love the Vietnamese fajitas.
Troy Fields
Regulars love the Vietnamese fajitas.

Location Info

Map

Mai's Restaurant

3403 Milam
Houston, TX 77002

Category: Restaurant > Vietnamese

Region: Downtown/ Midtown

Details

11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. Friday through Saturday
Spring rolls: $3.50
Salt-and-pepper wings: $6
Lotus root salad: $9
Caramelized catfish: $8
Combination pho: $7.50
Salt-toasted tofu: $9
Vietnamese combination fajitas: $14
Cornish hen with rice: $7
Saigon rocky road: $6


READ MORE
SLIDESHOW: Mai's: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
BLOG POST: Nostalgia Is a Two-Way Street at Mai's


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He thought for a few seconds, then: "I'm a Mai's regular," he stated, a proud look on his face.

"What does that even mean?"

"It means that when you're a regular, you know there are just certain dishes you don't order here. Maybe the pho is one of them," he offered. "I'm always happy with what I order."

As he looked down at the chocolatey, coconut-slathered, ice cream topped mess we'd fairly destroyed, he said, "I'm content."

Our waitress came back by the table a few minutes later and shook her head at the remains of our dessert. "Saigon rocky road," she clucked at us. "Ice cream okay. But rest of dessert too sweet." She shook her head again, as if attempting to encourage us to order something else next time, then walked off with a smile.

It had been my first decent meal at Mai's, and — for that night, at least — I agreed with my friend. I was content.

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

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63 comments
MadMac
MadMac

Late to this party but oh well. I've eaten at Mai's twice and each time, brisk service was a blessing as I would've paid more to leave sooner.

VietGirl
VietGirl

I hate Mai's!!!! The last time I went there, I ordered Muc Rang Muoi (Salt Peppered Squid) and they brought out this plate of wet mess (looked more like a stir fry). I told them it wasn't what I ordered and not only did the waiter argue with me but the owner came over and argued with me as well. I'm Vietnamese and know what Muc Rang Muoi is and what it should look like! After about a minute of arguing back and forth, they finally took my order back to the kitchen and instead of making me a new dish of WHAT I ORDERED, they simply picked out the vegetables that were in there, blotted the sauce off of it and set it back on my table. Needless to say, my friend and I didn't even touch it. I will never give that place another chance!!!

Aguilera
Aguilera

I just would like to say forget the cuisine, let us talk about its culture and local customs.

JCErcambrack
JCErcambrack

It's not about the Mai's myth being attacked. It's not mythical to know you don't really go to Mai's unless it's after 10PM on a weekend.

Also, it's kind of stupid to keep going somewhere if it's always such a shitty experience.

I'm not stating an opinion when I quote Katharine's own erroneous words regarding Vietnamese food in Houston. She's a hack, but the Katharine circle jerk must go on. Her comments in response to being called out in 5 Food Trends Houston Should Export show she's either obtuse or she didn't even write the article, she obviously doesn't know what she said.

Defluernoir
Defluernoir

You're getting closer to being specific, good job, JCE. You called her words "erroneous", but failed to mention which part is in error. Keep going, and tell us what exactly you dispute, then an argument might ensue based on more than just opinions.

Sorry if that concept seems opaque to you, as does the 'multiple visit' convention for critics.

Harristaleom
Harristaleom

She wrote the Viet food scene here in Houston has been improved by the Katrina refugees from New Orleans, some of whom could really cook. You disagree with that JCE?

JCErcambrack
JCErcambrack

What is erroneous... that the below quote was published. Read it. It's wrong. We magically have good Vietnamese in Houston because of Hurricane Katrina, aside from your comments here I never read a more asinine pile of shit.

"3. Vietnamese food

One of the benefits of Houston's open-arms policy towards New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina was the influx of Vietnamese people. Prior to the hurricane, New Orleans was widely considered to have the best Vietnamese food in the country. My old boss, a Vietnamese immigrant, once told people who asked her where to get the best Vietnamese food in Houston: "Drive to New Orleans." No more, as Houston has far surpassed New Orleans in both quantity and quality of Vietnamese eateries. It's also one of the many reasons that Houston has begun being referred to as the "New Creole City." But why keep all the deliciousness to ourselves? Places like Cafe TH are slowly expanding to other markets -- owner Minh Nguyen is currently opening a second location in New Orleans, bringing the cuisine full ciricle -- but Austin is on his radar next."

Biker
Biker

You, sir/madam, need to go back to first grade and start all over with that reading comprehension. You're clearly an idiot and can't read...AND, food critics are SUPPOSED TO GO BACK TO THE RESTAURANTS THEY ARE REVIEWING several times, even if the food tastes like shit on a plate.

Cheddarflem
Cheddarflem

yeah, Del, you sound like a serious foodie. lol.

and I'm sure you DO agree with JCE; both of you spout opinions with no specifics. kind of hard to dispute general opinions. so I'll just say, 'I disagree'. and my opinion will be as valid as yours.

JCErcambrack
JCErcambrack

I really don't think Katharine has any business reviewing any type of Vietnamese cuisine.

I don't know what she expected now if she thought the pho was so shitastic how long ago? And since she already put it there in the article, yeah I'd dump her ass too if I knew what a hack of a restaurant reviewer she'd turn out to be. She kept returning to Mai's and expecting different result than previously expected, hmmmm what's it called when you do the same thing and expect different results? They probably served her hardening spring rolls because she gives off the vibe of a person that doesn't know a damn thing about Vietnamese food in Houston.

Anyway, I wanted to enjoy reading Katharine's "articles" but I lost all respect when she puked up this pile of bullshit in 5 Food Trends Houston Should Export

"3. Vietnamese food

One of the benefits of Houston's open-arms policy towards New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina was the influx of Vietnamese people. Prior to the hurricane, New Orleans was widely considered to have the best Vietnamese food in the country. My old boss, a Vietnamese immigrant, once told people who asked her where to get the best Vietnamese food in Houston: "Drive to New Orleans." No more, as Houston has far surpassed New Orleans in both quantity and quality of Vietnamese eateries. It's also one of the many reasons that Houston has begun being referred to as the "New Creole City." But why keep all the deliciousness to ourselves? Places like Cafe TH are slowly expanding to other markets -- owner Minh Nguyen is currently opening a second location in New Orleans, bringing the cuisine full ciricle -- but Austin is on his radar next."

Katharine makes an even bigger ass of herself in the comments section. Perhaps the editor cut out all the important words needed for the above statement to be proper and correct? That must be it.

Winelush
Winelush

You know there are little round pills perfect for combatting deep seated anger issues like vicious diatribes against a restaurant critic. Seriously, call your doctor you obviously have a problem. You didn't get to drop kick a puppy today or what?

Defluernoir
Defluernoir

JCE writes: "She kept returning to Mai's and expecting different result than previously expected, hmmmm what's it called when you do the same thing and expect different results?"

It's called a restaurant critic, buddy. You know, one who makes allowances for a bad night, so returns to see if the experience is a fairly consistent one.

Can you try making your point a little better? Start with your first sentence and go from there, trying to support it with evidence.Sheesh! My high-school freshman writes a better declarative essay.

JCErcambrack
JCErcambrack

You obviously lack reading comprehension skills.

Defluernoir
Defluernoir

Go slowly, then, and make your points again. Maybe you'll have better luck if you try again, and you can even make an argument this time and not look so silly, so shrill.

JCErcambrack
JCErcambrack

My point is that she knows nothing about Vietnamese food and her own words back that up. I'm sorry you're butthurt, I didn't realize you had such a hard on for Katharine. I'll be back with a proper dissertation on why Katharine knows nothing about Vietnamese; it will once again be a quote of her ignorance in 5 Food Trends Houston Should Export, I think that alone should suffice and if not, well an education is needed all around.

Defluernoir
Defluernoir

You state several of your opinions, provide her quotations, and engage in ad hominem.

Then you try to blame my lack of comprehension? Do yourself a favor and get a proper education.

Frank
Frank

I love Mai's. I love their Bun with Chicken, I love their chicken wings, I enjoy their spring rolls. I tend to stay away from the Chinese dishes and rarely deviate from my mainstays.

I will continue to frequent Mai's, eat my favorites and be thankful they are still around.

Van Loc has NEVER compared to Mai's in my book. They have terrible food, terrible service and the last time I was there, they had automatic room air fresheners that sprayed a horrible fake magnolia scent every few minutes. It was enough to gas me out of the place and promise never to return. There's also no ambience at Van Loc and the interior is dark because it's dirty.

Lisa Benston
Lisa Benston

Mai's has always been a reasonable late night option. But, during regular hours, I never even consider the place....Thien-An just down the street is the best in the area. So far above Mai's, and definitely Van Loc, that there is no comparison.

Chase Hamblin
Chase Hamblin

I definitely recommend Van Loc over Mai's. Van Loc's tofu dishes are amazing. Way better tasting than Mai's and much larger portion.

Frank on Food
Frank on Food

The best thing about Mai's is it's open late, as the owner is not a very polite person.

CL Nguyen
CL Nguyen

Ever notice why there are very few Vietnamese people there besides the waitstaff???? Because the food quality is poor, authenticity is lacking and everything is overpriced. Not to mention I always feel discriminated for being Vietnamese and speaking Viet to them. They only cater to people who are non-Viets and think that bad service is a norm in Asian cuisine.

Johnscar
Johnscar

Anthony Bourdain ate at Mai's because that was one of the only places open that late at night on a Monday from what I remember. He was between book signings. Mai's rolled out the guns that night and the food was good. Wanted(group) to take him somewhere else but it just wasn't meant to be.FYI-He met a group at the Chili Parlour in Austin sometime close to the night he was in Houston if I remember correctly.

Elizabeast359
Elizabeast359

OMG, I finally completely agree with you Katharine!!

Elizabeast359
Elizabeast359

OMG, I finally completely agree with you Katharine!!

feufoma
feufoma

Yeah, the following of Mai's is somewhat akin to the inexplicable devotion to El Felix. That was some really nasty food and just horrible service!! I just don't get it...

Craigley
Craigley

Oh come on you KNOW you miss that brown gravy on spaghetti as the side dish!

Mugen
Mugen

Mai's is like a cockroach. It's disgusting and hideous, but you can't kill it. Little Saigon on Milam packed up and moved to Bellaire, Scarsdale, and Veterans, but Mai's survived. Fire burned it down, but it's still alive.

I've eaten here three times. Everytime, I left disgusted. Want some decent Vietnamese food? Bellaire is not really that far away. You've got Pho Nguyen, Pho Binh, Banh Cuon Hoa, Banh Cuon Thien Thanh, Vinh Hoa, Don's Cafe, Pho Thai Binh Duong, Pho Dung, Kim Son, A Ly, Nguyen Ngo Sandwiches, etc... If you're drunk at 3AM, go find Mark's food truck, Phamily Bites. It's a zillion times better than the slop at Mai's.

Amanda
Amanda

I have to say I agree. I had heard the buzz surrounding Mai's after it burned down and all of the emphatic statements that declared Mai's the "best" in Houston. When it finally re-opened and I finally tried the food, I was sorely disappointed. Typically I have a memory reminiscent of a catalog for my food, but I cannot say what I even ordered from Mai's that night. I took it to go (only 5 minutes away) so the food was still hot but I can't comment on the service. In summary, the food was unmemorable. It was one of my first Vietnamese experiences so I'm still looking for that wow moment when I fall in love with Vietnamese food. Reading Katherine and Mai Pham's reviews I do believe that the place to convert me exists in Houston, but I get the impression from reviews that each place excels in one or two dishes, so I'm not sure where to start to get on the "Houston has the best Vietnamese" track.

Craigley
Craigley

I think the fire was by design to create "buzz" over a place that had none.

Amanda
Amanda

Also, I'm happy to see a definitive review. I know most places have highs and lows so it's great as a critic to acknowledge both dimensions, but I also enjoy when a critic can definitely call a places (especially an overrated institution) out for their flaws.

ChauncyDD
ChauncyDD

Laurels. Nostalgia. Times. Change. Competition. Evolution.None betterl said in long form.

Craigley
Craigley

Sweetie Pie,

I lived in the Midtown Ghetto (Perry Homes) back in the 1999 and we did not call it Mai-ah-re-ha for nothing.

Yet we still showed up for the dirty plate special after partying in the city followed by a drunken stroll through the walk in coolers in the Flower District.

Not sure if I can still handle (I'm 42 now) that slop on a plate, bad haircuts.

Dunstan45
Dunstan45

I love 'gobsmacked'.

But have a question, Katharine, and others:

I recall reading that Mai's would add a section to the menu that was more daring, that would introduce more authentic Vietnamese dishes, the kind you'd presumably find on Bellaire.Did you see any of that?

Leeannpartain
Leeannpartain

I just love that you wrote 'cartilaginous'!I think you are brilliant and hilarious, K!

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

I mostly agree with this review, but I think it must be noted that like any other restaurant, there are definitely some dishes at Mai's that are good to above-average, while others fall below the mark. Their garlic beef (Bo luc lac) is generally good, no matter what time of day. I haven't been there since they re-opened but in the past their congee (rice porridge) has always been solid, too.As for service, it probably has to do with culture, as well as the fact that the food costs so little (under $10/dish), but as a Vietnamese person I generally don't expect much from Asian restaurants. I think that's why so many on Bellaire Blvd are moving towards the self-serve model. Service is just not the forte of Vietnamese, Chinese and many other Asian restaurants (the exception to this would be Japanese). Culturally, I think the service mindset is: take the order, get the food out, clean the table, and do it briskly, where brisk service means good service.

H_e_x
H_e_x

Exactly. After reading this I was left wondering if the author has ever been to a Vietnamese place before. If she is expecting friendly service, then I want to have what she's on, because that's crazy. Hell, I've been to Vietnam and its the same. Hurried service. Any Vietnamese person could have told them that.

VonHaupstadt
VonHaupstadt

Agree that service here is an economic issue (turn tables briskly w/ a low per person $ avg...as elsewhere). The cultural thing you purport is somewhat nutty, and you'll have to elaborate upon that. I swear I've been to some Houston restaurants with elevated service levels. The old Dong Ting comes to mind. And other Chinese and Viet restaurants at higher price points might counter your casual, but damning, observation.

Self-serve btw, is about economics, not genes.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

When I say cultural, I mean that it's sort of an ingrained habit that comes from the homeland. In China (at least when I went to China, in Guangdong), when you go to a run-of-the-mill restaurant, you pay at the counter and pick up the food at the counter. Some places you have to buy tickets and exchange them as payment when you pick up the food. Other places that are more upscale, where they serve you at the table, you may have to pay for napkins. Yes, this happened. I went to a sit down dinner and asked for napkins, and was asked to pay something like 20 cents for a small pack of tissues. People end up just wiping their hands on their clothes. At most places (except for the ones in Westernized hotels) in China, service is generally brusque to the point of rudeness. They don't see it as being rude, they are just doing their job, getting it done.

So, when these people move to another country, instead of adapting to a more Westernized way of doing things, they maintain their old ways, which leads to what Westerners would look upon as bad service. In Vietnam, I think people may tip something like 10%, and service is marginally better, although not much better than in China.

My generalization is just that, a generalization, which means it applies to large number but certainly not all restaurants. And I wouldn't call it damning, that's just how it's done. It applies to run-of-the-mill places where the price points are in the $5-8 range. I eat at these places almost daily. It's just status quo.

And as for self-service, of course its about economics, but it's also cultural. In China, people don't tip. They don't tip in restaurants, in spas, their cab drivers. It's not done. Instead of waiting for a server to get a spoon, they'll just jump up and get it themselves. So a lot of the day-to-day eateries are self serve, and since it's like that over there, many of the places here are adopting that model. Less staff to hire, less complaints about service - they stick to what they do well in the kitchen.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I totally get you on the brisk service model and the cultural differences between Western and Asian restaurants. What cracks me up is that the worst service I received at Mai's (the lunch visit with the dirty dishes on the table while I ate) was from a young white kid. Heh.

Craigley
Craigley

all food aside, they make van loc look like the icon of cleanlieness

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

Mai's is one of those places that I'd never visit during regular dining hours - it's an after hours place, and thus is measured by a whole different yardstick. It's not great Vietnamese food, or even good Vietnamese food, but when the bars are closing and you're in Midtown, you can go to Mai's and eat Vietnamese food. For me, that's the point of the place.

Sollymcbride
Sollymcbride

Sure Albert. Makes perfect sense. Places that demand your dollar for food and drink at a certain time of day and night should be held to a different standard.Let's go easy on food criticism if the biz is late-nite. Even if most of their biz is done during the day at lunch and dinner.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

I have to counter this by saying that all three times I went to Mai's, it was after hours and I was invited by folks who "loved" the place and told me what I "had" to get. I'm also trying to figure out when Midtown was the hip place to go and Mai's was the only game in town in that area? I never lived through it.

Craigley
Craigley

what don't you "counter"? eh?

Barbarahlopez
Barbarahlopez

Ms Shilcutt seems to be biased against all vietnamese resturant, she never gives them a good review.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I barely feel like responding to this , but....eh, why not. In addition to what our other commenters have pointed out below, I also gave great reviews to Pho Ga Dakao and Cafe TH in the past year. The only Vietnamese restaurant I've ever given a poor review was this one, Mai's, unless you count Tan Tan (which I don't, as it only has a small Vietnamese section on its menu).

Kagan32
Kagan32

that's the dumbest thing i've read. ever.you obviously are *not* a reader.

 
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