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Memories of Mai's

As the whole world knows by now, popular Midtown Vietnamese Restaurant Mai's caught fire yesterday. This Houston institution is so popular, the fire has even gained national coverage outside of the culinary community, which is quite an amazing feat.

So why do we mourn Mai's? Perhaps because it was the first Vietnamese restaurant in Houston? Mai's has introduced generations of people to pho, bun and Vietnamese coffee. People from all over the city, young and old, came to Mai's to try something new before the Elgin area boomed, and then, even after. Not to mention, Mai's was open late, an awesome alternative to IHOP or Denny's, and without the wait of House of Pies. Before Taco Cabana, we all went to Mai's. Beyond that, even though we have our new spots for certain dishes, we still keep a place in our culinary hearts for Mai's.

Our first experience ever with Vietnamese food was a bowl of hot pho that Mom brought home from Mai's at the recommendation of a coworker. The magic of the healing broth made the cold seem less severe, and we were instantly hooked. We essentially got to play with our food too, and for a little kid, that was a definite plus.

Before there was a Vietnamese restaurant in every subdivision, Mai's was the site of many first dates (we can't be with a guy without a sense of adventure). We stuck by Mai's even after they raised prices after the expansion, which turned Mai's from a "dive" to an expensive-ish Vietnamese restaurant.

When we began dating our now-husband, Mai's was our place for a quiet date and good food, and the place for many nights of takeout. We have memories of laughing at little cousins who were enthralled with the fish in the huge tanks -- along with the looks on their faces when they realized that the strange food in front of them was really good. Of course, there were also many nights that we oozed over there after a night of clubbing. Mai's was what we craved when we had a good buzz.

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Mai's introduced us to many new flavors, such as fish sauce, lemongrass and sweet beans. Love the place or hate it, it had some dishes that were unmatched, even by some less expensive counterparts. The xoi chien thit nuong (sticky rice with barbecue pork) was a surprise favorite at family dinners. Yes, it took a little extra time, but the combination of sweet and salty, or chewy and soft, made this a standout dish. We dreamed of the ga luc lac (garlic chicken) and introduced countless friends to tofu with the dau hu luc lac (garlic tofu).

For years, Mai's was a place that all friends could agree on when we needed dinner. It was a special place we could share. Mai herself was always polite, even when she was slammed at her register, and managed to memorize all the regular's names.

Once the dust has settled, we hope the Nguyen family will rebuild. What are your favorite memories of Mai's? Post 'em up.

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