First Taste

Why the crowds continue to line up for Mai's: The tale of Houston's reborn restaurant

Why the crowds continue to line up for Mai's: The tale of Houston's reborn restaurant

News_Mai's_Anna Pham
The new Mai's brings the restaurant to a new level. Photo by Clifford Pugh
News_Mai's
The dishes are many and memorable. Photo by Sarah Rufca
News_Mai's
Photo by Sarah Rufca
News_Mai's
Photo by Sarah Rufca
News_Mai's
Photo by Sarah Rufca
News_Mai's
Photo by Sarah Rufca
News_Mai's_Anna Pham
News_Mai's
News_Mai's
News_Mai's
News_Mai's
News_Mai's

If you are looking for a dish-by-dish comparison of the old and the new Mai's, I'm not going to be much help. Before the fire, Mai's was a somewhat regular late-night treat, and by "late-night" I mean "very fuzzy memories of staring into fish tanks."

So even without the makeover and new menu, a lunch at the new Mai's was a new experience for me. Some say the pale green walls and bamboo accents make the restaurant too fancy for its humble ethnic food origins, but I think it's a tangible symbol of the progression of ethnic food, specifically Vietnamese food, from an exotic hole-in-the-wall to mainstream culinary destination, with the decor, service and prices to match.

I started with one of the new Vietnamese classics, bun bo hue. The broth was delicious from the get-go — just spicy enough — but I was a little off-put by the chewiness of the beef tripe at first. This for me was the rarest of dishes: One that gets better as a leftover, after the spices and broth have had even more time to marinate the meat.

 Is Mai's the best Vietnamese food inside the Loop? Judging by the round-the-clock lines, plenty of people think so. 

I do remember the spring rolls being a favorite at the old Mai's, but this time I found them just OK. What really stood out as an appetizer was the xoi chien, or fried sticky rice patties. Proprietor Anna Pham said the sticky rice is cooked for more than 24 hours, and I loved the texture combined with the ever-so-slight sweetness. Another favorite was the banh xeo, or Vietnamese crepe.

They are a great example of the new Mai's with a nod to authentic street food and a focus on freshness, as the slightly-greasy crepe was served with lettuce and mint to combine into a DIY wrap. The onions in the crepe overpowered the pork, shrimp and bean sprouts, but the minty freshness made it great.

I wanted to check out the Vietnamese fajitas (or, as my friend calls them, "roll your own damn egg rolls"), but I couldn't leave to Mai's without a taste of the signature garlic beef. It's easy to see why this is a favorite, and I loved it: Hunks of tender, marinated beef were the perfect size to pick up with a couple veggies and some rice. It had a bit of the stick-to-your-bones heaviness of a tried-and-true comfort food, with just enough garlic to make it interesting.

I usually skip desserts at Asian restaurants (they are often either strangely juxtaposed American dishes or weird trying-too-hard amalgamations) but I'm so glad I let myself get talked into the banana pudding. It's actually more of a coconut pudding with warm, oozy slices of banana and jelly pearls mixed in and a sprinkling of crushed peanuts on top. Sweet, but not too sweet, and just a little bit chewy, it put every other pudding I've ever had to shame.

Is Mai's the best Vietnamese food inside the Loop? Judging by the round-the-clock lines, plenty of people think so.

There are some serious challengers — Huynh comes to mind — and I would believe that there are some pho specialists around town who could win a soup contest. But when it comes to putting it all together, and creating a menu that's authentic without being intimidating, I think Mai's is the one to beat.