In February 2010, Mai's -- the popular Midtown Vietnamese restaurant that had served hungry patrons until the wee hours of the morning for more than 30 years -- burned nearly to the ground.
"It was a very humbling experience for us," said Anna Pham on a sunny, blue-skied Wednesday afternoon. Pham is Mai's daughter, the youngest of three generations to have a hand in the family business. "It was like a death, in a way," she continued. "But eventually you have to put that away and move on to better things."
"Some people say that the fire was a blessing in disguise," she pondered as we finished up a tour of the brand-new space that's being rebuilt in the same 5,000 square feet that Mai's previously occupied. She smiled. "That's one way of looking at it, I guess."
The new space is extraordinary, nothing like the Mai's of yore except for a few key aspects. "The front door is exactly where it used to be," Pham gestured. "Same size and everything. That was important to us. Mai really believes in feng shui."
But inside those doors, patrons returning to the restaurant when it reopens in Spring 2011 will be greeted with a host of changes: cozy booths that can accommodate up to 12 people, round tables abandoned in favor of square four-tops, a lounge area for happy hours, a bar -- yes, Mai's now has a TABC license -- to supply libations for those happy hours and a wholly new upstairs area that was once only storage rooms and offices.
Rumors had persisted over the years that the upstairs portion of Mai's housed any number of unsavory activities, but the reality was far more ordinary. As to why the restaurant never renovated the upstairs area -- or the downstairs, for that matter -- in its 31 years of existence, Pham chuckles. "Mai only closed three days a year: Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year."
"We could only get contractors in here to do things on those three days a year," she said, referring to a time when the floor was once refinished in less than 30 hours. Asked if her mother would have ever done such an extensive renovation had the fire never happened, Pham is unsure. "We always wanted to give the place a facelift," she said. "But I don't know if we would have ever had time."
After the fire, the Pham family debated their options for the restaurant: to reopen elsewhere? To go into the downtown tunnel system? To open a second restaurant while Mai's was getting back on its feet? "To tell the truth, Mai never wanted to open a second location," Pham said. They looked at alternate locations to where the restaurant could be moved, such as Bellaire or Washington Avenue. "Mai doesn't think Washington will last another five years," Pham said, nodding her head. "She said it reminded her of Westheimer in its heyday, people squeezing through four lanes and traffic everywhere."
And so, in the end, the Phams decided to keep their feet firmly planted on Milam Street, where downtown certainly isn't going anywhere any time soon. Pham hopes that the downtown business crowd will fill out some of the upstairs area, where they have a space that can hold 30 people for lunch or dinner meetings. When finished, it will even have its own flat screen TV on the wall for presentations.
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And in the adjoining room, they plan to create a banquet room out of an additional 2,000 square feet of space, but that's a future endeavor. For now, Pham just wants to concentrate on finishing up the kitchen so they can test recipes and then get the whole restaurant open for the spring.
"The menu will stay the same," she promised, although they plan to rearrange it slightly. Pham wants to offer smaller versions of the standard dishes, both for people interested in portion control and people interested in the smaller (read: cheaper) price that would accompany those small plates. The restaurant also intends to keep its former late-night hours and has added three additional parking lots to accommodate the increased seating capacity: It's nearly doubled, from 107 seats to 211.
As to the outpouring of sympathy, the national news coverage and even the shout-out from Anthony Bourdain himself after the February fire, Pham seems pleasantly befuddled and thankful. "It's just what we do, it's our job," she said. "It's our blood and sweat and tears in this restaurant, and we just want to get back to what we were doing."
For more photos from the renovation and rebuilding process, check out our slideshow.