The front door at Mai's Restaurant is right where it has always been, facing onto Milam Street and slightly left of center on the Midtown building.
That probably is a good thing, and not just because Mai, a feng shui master, declared it auspicious. Once inside the doors, there's visually not much else that resembles the original Mai's, one of Houston's first Vietnamese restaurants and one of the most popular until a kitchen fire tore through the restaurant exactly one year ago Tuesday.
"There were a lot of things we wanted to do but we didn't want to close for more than one day," says Mai Nguyen, whose mother originally opened the restaurant in 1972. "We're so excited to have our family and staff back. We put our work and our dreams into this business. It's hard to even think about that day, about the fire. It is always in my mind and my heart."
With an April opening date set, the new space is sleek, modern, and open, with more subtle Asian cues and a natural bent. Anna Pham, Mai's third-generation proprietor, says she was inspired by sushi restaurants and steakhouses, mixing trendy with classic.
The biggest change is immediate: The entrance now contains a two-story atrium and faces straight onto Mai's new, large bar, decked in green glass tiles, natural stone and wood accents. A hostess stand takes the place of the former cashier station and the round tables for groups have been replaced with spacious banquettes in chocolate brown and moss green, with bamboo dividers to up the drama.
In addition, a staircase to the left of the bar now leads to additional seating upstairs, which will be available to rent for parties or meetings (there's even a projector installed) as well as for overflow seating on Mai's busy late nights.
"The second floor was the first thing we wanted to do," Pham says. "It was such a waste of space."
Tran says in addition to the physical makeover, she's also pared down the menu. "It felt overwhelming," she says of the two-hundred plus numbered options, many of which were slight variations on the same dish. In addition to creating a more accessible menu, Tran is adding about 25 new dishes, all of which she refers to as classic Vietnamese comfort food.
"We wanted to be more true to Vietnamese cuisine," Pham says. "There are certain things we would eat at home that weren't on the menu. Vietnamese cuisine isn't as exotic any more, people know cumin mint from regular mint and they understand more about the flavors. We want to bring in the kind of rich and savory dishes that my grandma raised me on."
New dishes include quail eggs with pork belly and banh xeo, a Vietnamese crepe made with bean sprout, pork, shrimp, mushrooms and vegetables rolled up and eaten with fish sauce. "This is street food in Hanoi," Pham says.
Mai's has set a grand opening date of April 16, which also happens to be Tran's birthday. Its selection by a feng shui expert has the ring of destiny, since the original opening date — March 2, 1978 — happened to fall on Mai's birthday.
Editor's note: CultureMap has followed Mai's rebuild every step of the way. Check out Sarah Rufca's earlier stories: