By the time I heard about Mai's , it no longer existed. As a relative newcomer to Houston, I asked a colleague to recommend a good Vietnamese restaurant. "Mai's is terrific," she said. "I mean, was terrific. [Pause]. It burned down." (Leave it to a drama student to infuse food smalltalk with histrionics.)
But Mai's rose from the ashes like a...well, I'll spare you the analogy. Just know that Mai's is back, and while I can't say it's better than ever, I will say that my recent visit is certainly the first of many (I missed the grand opening on April 16).
If the old Mai's had, as I've been told, more of a "mom-and-pop" feel, the new Mai's is certainly different in that respect. It's glossy and sleek, with light wood accents, shiny chairs, faux bamboo, and a full downstairs bar. The atmosphere is, dare I say, "trendy," yet still feels welcoming and unpretentious.
Owner Mai's oldest daughter Anna revamped much of the menu as well as the interior, keeping many of the old favorites and adding some more sophisticated items, including wonderful cocktails. My lychee "mai-tini" was distractingly good: sweet but edgy, and garnished with a large drunken berry nestled in the tip of the glass. My friend's Italian Margarita, a nutty twist on the Texas classic, was also terrific.
I sampled several appetizers, like the simple but delicious spring rolls and the refreshing goi ngo sen tom thit , a lotus root salad layered with shrimp, pork, carrots, cucumbers and roasted peanuts. I was a bit uncertain about the banh mi bo kho, given that beef stew is not my food of choice on sultry spring evenings, but the tender chunks of tenderloin and spicy broth were rich without being overwhelming.
The best of the lot, however, was definitely the banh xeo: a large, fluffy egg crepe filled with sautéed onions, peppers, bean sprouts, shrimp and scrumptious bits of pork. I could have made a whole meal of that dish, and probably would have, if several more entrees weren't on the way.
I've often found that exciting appetizers pave the way for comparatively pedestrian entrees, as restaurants tend to play it safe when it comes to main courses. Thankfully, this was not the case at Mai's. Their signature dish, the bo luc lac , mixed succulent pieces of filet mignon in a bold garlic sauce along with bell peppers and jalapenos.
As an admitted (but hardly recovering) soft-shell crab addict, I was prepared to judge the cua lot chien bo rather harshly. And though I ultimately prefer my crabs deep-fried in a seasoned white flour batter, I nevertheless very much enjoyed Mai's more peppery stir-fried version.
I was intimidated when my companion suggested we try the lau ech, a spicy frog's legs hot pot stew, and even more intimidated when it arrived. It's not so much that I don't enjoy eating Kermit's appendages, but rather that I always tend to be a bit standoffish with dishes that come with their own heating devices. As the klutziest former ballerina on earth, I worry I will set something on fire in the midst of serving myself. Not a good thing, especially given Mai's history.
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But after two generous ladles of stew and a baseball-size scoop of white rice, I temporarily got over my anxieties. The frog's legs were tender, not rubbery, and the broth earthy and soothing, with strong notes of chiles, garlic and ginger.
I had aspirations of trying the Vietnamese coffee flan or the sweet bean coconut milk, but even this marathon eater can reach her limit -- a sweet excuse to visit again that much sooner.