Dare We Say It?
See more photos from Mai's rebuilt restaurant and modern, updated interior in our slideshow.
Even at 2 p.m. on an otherwise quiet Monday afternoon, Mai's Restaurant's dining room is three-quarters full. Businessmen from downtown hunch over bowls of pho or plates of Vietnamese fajitas, while neighborhood kids from Montrose dunk spring rolls into tiny ramekins of peanut sauce. Retirees lunch leisurely at the table next to me, discussing their latest cruise destination over bowls of bun.
The old Mai's may have burned down in 2010, the new Mai's rising from the ashes over the next year with custom interiors, a slick bar and an expensive glass chandelier hanging above the entrance, but things here are still the same as they ever were.
Whether that's a good thing or not is up for debate.
I was already frustrated with my lunch at Mai's that day before the food even came. At the entrance — which is still located in the same spot as the old one — I'd been refused my request to sit in the dining room proper, which is never a good way to lead off a meal.
"Just one in your party?" asked the host. "Would you like to sit in the bar?"
While I'm not opposed to sitting at the bar on certain occasions (you can often receive better service there, as well as conversation if you're one of those solo diners who likes to pretend they're not really all alone over dinner), I didn't really want to pass my lunch hour at Mai's bar.
"I'd rather sit in the dining room, thanks," I responded with a smile.
The host's response was to ignore me and lead me to a seat in the bar directly next to the swinging doors of the kitchen at a wobbly table, then walk quickly away. Gobsmacked by his complete refusal to seat me in the dining room, I took the table and started to wonder just what other treats like this would lay in store for me along the way.
As it turns out, those "treats" were many: tough spring rolls that felt and tasted as if they'd been pre-made the day before (rice paper doesn't hold up for too long once wet and wrapped); the tiniest possible serving of what turned out to be gritty, dusty-tasting peanut sauce that I didn't want anyway; brown, wilted bean sprouts inside the spring rolls, and still more brown, wilted cilantro and mint leaves for my bowl of pho; pho that tasted oddly sweet and full of schmaltz instead of beef fat; meatballs in the pho that were cartilaginous and disgustingly spongy; and a waiter who dumped dirty dishes on my table while he bussed the table next to me as I sat eating my meal.
Bad food? Indifferent service? Mai's may have a pretty new face, but some things never change.
If you grew up in Houston around a certain decade, Mai's may have very likely been the very first Vietnamese restaurant you ate at. It was mine, and I've had a contentious relationship with the restaurant ever since.
Mai's opened in 1978 and quickly became the kind of restaurant appreciated chiefly for two things: offering decent food at very late hours (it's open until 4 a.m. on weekend nights) and providing accessible if mediocre Vietnamese food. It seems as if everyone who's lived in Houston long enough has eaten at Mai's once, and everyone has their stories. I'm no exception, although my stories aren't sweetly nostalgic.
The first time I ate at Mai's was in high school, trying pho for the first time at 16 years old. For years afterward, I thought that I hated pho. Trying it again in college, I came to realize that I only hated pho because of how awful the pho had been that first time at Mai's. My recent lunch visit did nothing to disabuse me of this idea.
The second time I ate at Mai's, my boyfriend at the time dumped me over dinner because his therapist had told him to. I don't remember much of the food, other than thinking that it was pretty bland and that at least he'd chosen a restaurant I didn't like in which to break up with me, like: Alas, this fish tank will always be a painful reminder of our discarded emotions!
And the last time I ate at the old Mai's, it burned down a week later. I had nothing to do with that, of course. It was a grease fire in the kitchen.
When that grease fire caused Mai's to burn last February, the news was met with the sort of shocked anguish and fervor from the general public the likes of which hadn't been seen since Eva Peron's death in Argentina. I was sad for the family but didn't quite understand the level of despair over losing a place with such middling food. I could name a dozen other Vietnamese restaurants that are better than Mai's off the top of my head, although each attempt to recite this list to mourners was met with looks of revulsion, as if I were discussing a man's flaws at his funeral.
I started to wonder if I should start a support group: "Hi, my name is Katharine, and I don't like Mai's." People would agree with me, certainly, but in hushed tones. Because love it or hate it, there's no denying that the restaurant is regarded as a citywide treasure. Even Anthony Bourdain has mentioned the restaurant in interviews about Houston, although it pains me to think that Mai's is the one Vietnamese restaurant that some PR schmuck took him to amidst the wealth of other options in town.
And while I may sound cynical, I can certainly understand why Mai's is so highly regarded: It's a family business in its third generation, and no matter how underwhelming I think the food (and service) is, the truth is that it introduced generations of Houstonians to a cuisine that's now as popular in our city as Tex-Mex. Its late-night hours will always serve a useful purpose, and regulars love the place as much as they love their own mother's kitchen. It's for this reason that I took a regular with me on my first visit back to the new Mai's.
I hadn't set foot inside the finished Mai's since it reopened, although I came for a site visit last November, when Anna Pham, daughter of the famous Mai herself, guided me through the renovations in the cavernous 5,000-square-foot space. A bar was being installed downstairs, along with banquet rooms and private spaces upstairs and new booths in the main dining room. The fish tanks had been removed to make more room for more guests.
I was wowed when I stepped through the new glass doors a few weeks ago, seeing the spacious dining room all decked out in modern shades of taupe and moss green. The two-story foyer held an impressive glass chandelier and the bar looked inviting, while cleverly hiding the expediting area for the kitchen behind it. Meanwhile, my dining companion — the regular — was greeting his favorite waiters. His head popped up at the sound of Mai's voice ringing out from the kitchen, and he smiled.
The look on his face was one of comfort, as if he'd heard a parent return from a long trip.
Our appetizers were excellent, giving me pause. Had I judged Mai's too harshly in the past? Salt-and-pepper chicken wings were wonderfully crispy and brightly seasoned with flicks of garlic and chiles, while a lotus root salad was large enough for four people to split and humming with citrus, fish sauce and roasted peanuts among the vegetables and thin slices of pork.
But our service was unfriendly and hasty, as if the waitress couldn't wait to turn our table and get us the hell out of there. The "Mai"-garita my friend ordered was blatantly awful, tasting of well tequila and lime juice, although he admitted it was his own fault for ordering a margarita at a Vietnamese restaurant. And the entrees left much to be desired: mushy, muddy-tasting catfish carried none of the caramelized fish sauce flavor in its too-soft meat, while my salt-toasted tofu was dried-out and had the consistency of slightly moistened drywall inside its tough little shell. I was thankful that I'd spent the extra $6 to get vegetables thrown into my dish, while annoyed that I'd had to spend $15 in all to get a dish that was only half-good.
As we left, my dining companion admitted that the food had been much worse than usual, but that he — unlike me — was charmed by the service, and rushed to defend our waitress.
"You've gotta understand," he admonished me. "She's been there for years. That's just how it is here."
On my third visit, I once again took that same regular to see if he could be a lucky charm after my disastrous lunch visit. The old waitress from that first visit was taking care of our table again, and she instantly remembered both of us. Her demeanor changed, a smile lit up her face. She was still brisk and a little too aggressive in clearing plates and glasses, but it was with an almost maternal fondness this time.
"See what I mean?" my friend laughed when I remarked on her change in tone.
Our meal proceeded fairly well from there, although still with stumbles: vegetarian eggrolls were good, but the sticky sauce served with them had congealed into a solid; my Cornish hen was buttery and well-seasoned if very small, but the rice that came with it was somewhat dried out; my friend's combination Vietnamese fajitas came with fat grilled shrimp and tender, marinated strips of beef, but his pile of lettuce and herbs was wilted and black in areas.
He didn't seem to mind, however, tucking it all into each hand-rolled fajita in rice paper as he went merrily along.
"You're really good at that," I remarked at one point.
"It's from years of rolling joints," he replied. I suspect that Mai's food probably tastes better after a bowl, just as it likely tastes better when you're thoroughly drunk and looking for food at 3 a.m., like a large majority of its evening clientele.
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.
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.
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