[Ed. Note: Musicians and other night owls, we'd love to hear your Mai's memories... please leave them in the comments.]
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Today's devastating fire at Mai's Restaurant off upper Milam brings an end - a temporary one, we hope - to a beloved late-night institution. For years now, the family-owned Vietnamese joint has been dishing out spring rolls and their famous garlic tofu to hungry and drunken patrons from all parts of the downtown area looking for something better than a greasy cheeseburger or a soggy slice of pizza. For many of Houston's night folk, Mai's was the last stop before home, yours or someone else's. Friday and Saturday nights around 2 a.m., the doors began to bulge with people from all manner of bar and club life looking for a table. Houston Police officers would sometimes help work the door, taking names and numbers of guests to help the staff who went into robot mode to try to buck the boozy rush. The staff was wickedly efficient even as 3 a.m. dug in closer, and the place was a sea of tiny Vietnamese chicks in sequined dresses and boys in clubwear milling about outside. Most people in town who partied off Westheimer or in Midtown would find themselves busting the hatch at Mai's at least once in their travels, if not at least once every week or so. It was just cleaner and better food at such an ungodly hour, after a night of ingesting copious alcohol. You didn't feel so slovenly sharing a plate of spring rolls with a date or splitting a plate of noodles with your buddy. But Mai's was good at any time of day. This wasn't some drunken hovel. You could even take someone here on a dinner date and not feel like a low-rent scrub. Rocks Off used to drive down Milam every now and then for lunch or after work to get his spring rolls, soup and lemongrass tofu injection. For many people Mai's was their first entry into the world of Vietnamese cuisine. This wasn't your parents' half-cooked egg roll or orange chicken from some mall Chinese place by your suburban home. Mai's was all flavored lively, and left you not feeling weighted down like other places... and reasonably priced. It took us awhile to understand that pho was pronounced "fah" and not "faux." Late-night excursions won't be the same without the Mai's option. While we were taking pictures this morning of the devastation for Hair Balls, we kept thinking of what options we have left now at night. Ruchi's off Shepherd, maybe Biba's Ones A Meal? We never got into Katz's Deli and Late Nite Pie is fine, but it takes a long time when all you want to do is eat and crash out at home. You have to rush to Tacos A Go-Go to snag a plate. Mai's fit us and the bar scene like a glove. What now?