On Friday evening, the new location of the Vietnamese restaurant Mai Lee is packed, and we wait fifteen minutes for a table for two. When we return for a late lunch on Sunday, we're seated immediately, but occupied tables outnumber unoccupied tables at least three to one. Back once again, alone this time, for a weekday lunch, I take one look at the crowd lingering around the entrance — business types and college students listening for the host to call their names — and decide to sit at the bar. Several other solo diners have made the same choice. Next day? Same thing.
Each visit, it seems, the employees and one or two customers greet one another with the sort of enthusiasm usually reserved for the end of hostage crises or rescues at sea. While I admire the devotion, I'm more than a little perplexed. Between the closing of Mai Lee's original home at Delmar Boulevard and I-170 and the opening of its new digs in Brentwood, only a few weeks passed.
The new location is a strange one: the ground floor of the parking garage that serves the Brentwood MetroLink station, on a street that is really more of an access road behind the big-box shopping center at Hanley and Eager roads. The crowds suggest that two months after its debut, the awkward address presents no obstacle.
The interior is a significant improvement over the old space. Gone is the dingy strip-mall vibe that no amount of decoration could hide completely. The dining room is spacious — 100 seats is probably a lowball estimate, and a small bar area to one side of the entrance offers additional seating — and the décor features a mix of traditional Vietnamese designs and framed reviews from Mai Lee's quarter-century run.
By every account that I've read, Mai Lee was the first Vietnamese restaurant in St. Louis. (Lee Tran herself, having recently immigrated to the United States from Vietnam, opened it as a Chinese restaurant and then added the dishes of her native cuisine.) No doubt its status as "the first" and its longevity — an eternity in restaurant terms — help to explain its popularity. But after multiple visits to this new location, I suspect an additional reason for its continued appeal: It's that rare place where both newcomers to and aficionados of a cuisine can enjoy a satisfying meal.
Even as a lover of Vietnamese food and a practiced skimmer of menus, I'm overwhelmed by the number of dishes available — nearly 200, and that doesn't even count a separate section of Chinese dishes. Say you want something straightforward, a crowd pleaser, like spring rolls. Sure, you can order ordinary goi cuon. Or you can roll your own. Really. The kitchen brings you all the necessary ingredients, including the meat or seafood of your choice, and you arrange them yourself. Fun for a group or the spring-roll obsessed. I'm lazy, though, and more than content with the regular goi cuon: three bites of sticky rice paper, crunchy vegetables, shrimp and pork with a mildly spicy nuoc cham for dipping.
For a change of appetizer pace, I also sample banh bao, a softball-size dumpling. Inside the sweet, slightly sticky dough is sausage and half a hard-boiled egg. To an American's tastes, it's like the perfect cross between doughnut and breakfast sandwich.
From the selection of house specialties, I focus on two meats that you don't encounter very often at local Vietnamese restaurants: duck and lamb. The former is vit quay, half of a roasted duck hacked into pieces and served with a ginger-soy sauce on the side. The meat is tender, with the luscious flavor of rendered duck fat, but of course the main appeal of roasted duck is the crisp mahogany skin. The tangy, salty ginger-soy sauce helps cut through the fatty richness. The only drawback? The duck, likely parcooked for efficiency's sake, arrives somewhere shy of piping hot.
The lamb dish is truu xao xa ot, in which the meat is stir-fried with lemongrass and chiles. The flavor is difficult to describe. Lamb's natural gaminess is present, as is lemongrass' distinctly sharp taste, but these brighter flavors as well as the chiles' kick are balanced by a sauce so savory that I wonder if it has been laced with demiglace. At any rate, it's a beguiling dish and well worth trying if you think you have Vietnamese cuisine "figured out."
Muc xao lan brings more familiar flavors: lemongrass again, here with coconut milk and curry. The meat is squid, wonderfully liberated from its American drudgework as fried appetizer; the white pieces of meat (cut into a trumpet shape like campanelle pasta, rather than the usual rings) have been sautéed precisely long enough to cook without becoming too tough. Yes, squid has a very mild, even unexciting, flavor — hence all the deep-frying and serving with marinara sauce or aioli — but here it provides a satisfyingly meaty texture to convey the dish's heady mixture of flavors.
No review of a Vietnamese restaurant is complete without mention of pho and banh mi — traditional beef noodle soup and a French-Vietnamese fusion sandwich, respectively — the two dishes that have become objects of veneration and cultish devotion among food maniacs. Mai Lee's pho tai doesn't disappoint: It's a generous portion of thinly sliced steak and dense meatball, in a broth pungent with the flavor of anise and green onion and tricked out, to your taste, with basil, cilantro and jalapeños. Like all good pho, with a dash or sriracha sauce, it can knock out your cold, your hangover, your existential ennui.
The banh mi, though, is a disappointment. The appeal of the sandwich (aside from its low price) is its lightness of body and flavor: thinly sliced meat — usually some combination of ham, headcheese and pâté — and vegetables (pickled daikon, jalapeño, cilantro) folded into a baguette. Mai Lee serves thick slices of meat, which overwhelm the flavor and snap of the vegetables, rendering this little different from a typical pork-heavy American sandwich.
The only other low spot is the service. This is less a function of the staff's talent than the restaurant's popularity. Simply, there doesn't seem to be enough servers to handle the large dining room when it's at capacity, so service varies from rushed to absent. You might wait ten minutes to receive a hello and a glass of water, but then your entrée might arrive while your appetizer is still on the table.
I suppose as the initial crowds thin somewhat, this problem will solve itself. I'm just glad Mai Lee was closed for weeks instead of months. Any longer and I might still be waiting for a table.