First look: The new Mai's restaurant strikes the right balance of old and new
As a longtime patron at Mai's, the Midtown Vietnamese restaurant and Houston culinary landmark, I was a bit skeptical about its makeover after a fire gutted the building on Milam 14 months ago.
The old Mai's offered good, no-frills food at reasonable prices and an interesting mix of clientele — lawyers and business types by day; cops and club kids after midnight — that always made it special. I worried that, like a lot of restaurants that try to reinvent themselves, it might stray from its roots in an attempt to be more "current."
So with some trepidation, I entered the restaurant for my first look Tuesday night while owner Mai Nguyen was working out any kinks before it officially opens Saturday.
Whew! From first impressions, it seems that Nguyen and her daughter, Anna Pham, who has taken on a chief management role, have struck the right balance of keeping the good things about the old Mai's while freshing it up for a 21st century clientele.
Like a middle-aged woman who has received a really good face-lift from a talented plastic surgeon, the new Mai's looks refreshed and even a little hip. The interior, designed by Studio Red Architects, is much sleeker than it used to be — the garish neon is gone and the space now has a much larger bar area, with booths lining the soft green walls in the dining area and granite tile counters in the bathroom. But it's not so polished as to be off-putting.
The dining area, with simple tables and chairs, seems smaller and more intimate than before, although the concrete floors make for a buzzy noise factor. And now, there's an upstairs area for overflow crowds and private banquets.
The first-floor perch where Nguyen used to handle the cash register and watch over diners is gone. She plans to observe from the bar and spend a lot more time in the kitchen to make sure the food adheres to her high standards.
I ordered the same thing that I used to before the fire — spring rolls, fried Vietnamese rolls, chicken with garlic, and fried shrimp with a jalapeno lemon dipping sauce on the side. Everything was just as good as I remembered and the prices are about the same, although portions seem smaller. Only two spring rolls are in an order instead of four; Vietnamese rolls has been reduced to four instead of six.
(Look for CultureMap food writer Sarah Rufca's more extensive restaurant review after the opening.)
Most of the waitstaff is back — our favorite waiter hugged me when we walked in. And the same easygoing atmosphere that one finds only in a family-owned restaurant remains.
"You can't change what put you on the map," Pham said.