They're within four blocks of each other in an area of town gorged with Vietnamese eateries; they're both family-run operations. Their menus are similar, each boasting more than 150 offerings. Even the cooking methods don't vary dramatically between the two restaurants. If I were presented with a plate of cha gio -- Vietnamese egg rolls -- that included versions from both Mai's and Van Loc, I wouldn't be able to tell which was which.
And yet I have friends who eat religiously at one restaurant, but wouldn't set foot in the other. When I ask, they're unable to give me a solid reason for their selectivity, in part, I suspect, because there is no solid reason to love one and loathe the other. Of course, given the similarities between the two, one might wonder what difference it makes if someone is addicted to Mai's and repulsed by Van Loc, or drawn to Van Loc and repelled by Mai's. In the broad sense, it probably doesn't make any difference. But dining isn't always about broad strokes; sometimes it's about subtle distinctions. And those who eschew Mai's for Van Loc, or vice versa, are denying themselves some serious subtleties.
Each of these Vietnamese restaurants has a distinct aura. Mai's, in particular, feels indefinably hipper. Maybe it's the pseudo-dive-like quality presented by Mai's loud, crowded, brightly lit room, with its charmingly passe linoleum floor and pink walls, that appeals to a young, fast crowd of boho wannabes. Maybe it's the glamorously made-up and perfectly manicured proprietor who's always present behind the counter adjacent to the front door; maybe it's the slightly curmudgeonly waitresses, irritating if you let them get to you, amusingly terse if you decide to stay lighthearted about it.
My table had a smile at the expense of one of our party who was put off by a server's aggressive, and unsolicited, efforts to demonstrate how he should eat his meal. She picked up a shrimp chip, and with her chopsticks, disarrayed a perfectly presented salad, piled a dollop of it on top of the chip and, holding it level with the diner's nose, said, "Eat it like this." This was after she had, at our request, pointed out to us the jellyfish in that same salad by dangling a tentacle, which resembled a gelatinous rubber band, before our friend's nose.
Our waitress' scrappy helpfulness proved lucky for me. My companion was turned off from eating his salad, so I got to finish it for him. This was goi sua (Summer Delight), a beautiful hodgepodge of super fresh, super crunchy vegetable slivers (carrots, cucumbers, green peppers, red onions) and julienned meats (pork, boiled shrimp, jellyfish) covered by a thin sprinkling of French-fried onions, crushed peanuts and jalapeno slices and encircled with fans of plump, half-dollar-sized, boiled shrimp. This is a dish that, if your palate doesn't run to the exotic, you shouldn't be frightened off from by the jellyfish. They're tasteless and used mostly for texture. Summer Delight is exquisitely satisfying, both in its taste and in the smug sense of satisfaction it gives you for consuming something healthy. There are probably full weeks in which I don't consume as much fiber and as many vitamins as are in this one dish.
Exquisite as well for taste and nutritional reasons are the goi cuon, the spring rolls that Mai Nguyen, manager of the 17-year-old restaurant that's her namesake, calls one of Mai's specialties. Vietnamese spring rolls have always especially appealed to my eye; we tried a bastardized version with charcoal broiled chicken instead of the usual shrimp halves and pork slivers. Mai's interpretation reveals a hint of shrimp and vegetables, barely discernible through their tight wrapping of rice paper. Very sexy. I like to dip them in turns in the accompanying peanut and fish sauces. Same with the fried egg rolls: they're immensely friendlier in their crispy rice paper cases than the standard ponderous Chinese egg roll, and you can avoid getting your fingers too greasy by wrapping them in a lettuce leaf along with a few shoots of cilantro, mint and bean sprouts, all of which are served by the mangerful alongside the rolls.
On a recent night, Mai's seafood gratified this Gulf Coast native, who likes to brag that she knows her shrimp. Everything was battered and fried, but still retained a delicateness that set it apart from your basic bait-camp fare. An off-the-menu Red Snapper Delight was smothered in vegetables and swimming in a tangy-sweet brown sauce. tom rang muoi, or salt toasted shrimp, rested on a bed of mushed garlic cloves, sliced green tomatoes, ginger and green onions, and came with a dipping sauce of peppered lemon juice on which floated a fleet of jalapeo slices. Cang cua rang muoi, or sauteed Alaskan king crab legs, its batter encasing even the shell, was served with the same vegetables and same dipping sauce as the shrimp. A layer of jalapeo slices again settled over everything.
It was all an invitation to gluttony. What it would have taken to transform the sam bo luong into part of that invitation, I'm not sure. Maybe lots of time. This dessert, served iced in a glass, consists of a clear, coffee-colored liquid in which are suspended boiled longans (a nutlike fruit), water chestnuts, dried apples, grapes and seaweed. Though the concoction is sweet, who wants a smoky (imparted by boiling the longans), oceanic (imparted by the seaweed) flavor for dessert? Not me. Maybe it's an acquired taste, but my table agreed we'd stick with the dau trang, an exorbitantly sweet, iced dessert drink of white beans with coconut milk.
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).
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.
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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.
Vietnamese egg rolls, $4.75; Summer Delight, (S) $9, (L) $13; sauteed Alaskan king crab, $9.50.
spring rolls, $4; hot and sour shrimp soup, (S) $6.50, (L) $8.50;stir-fried tofu with curry and coconut sauce, $6.50.