Mai Lee is the best Vietnamese restaurant in St. Louis. Review over.
Ok, I guess I should write more than that. Someone might tell you they prefer Pho Long or Pho Grand to Mai Lee, but they’re probably just bitter that they couldn’t get into Mai Lee. Or they might be a hipster who hates anywhere really popular. Either way, they are not to be trusted.
Qui Tran, St. Louis food scene advocate and one of the owners of Mai Lee, greeted us as we walked in. I think he’s going to be the new local personality that I live through vicariously. Incredibly friendly tattooed restaurateur/chef who is built like a brick shithouse. What a cool guy.
Considering we’ve been going to Mai Lee for my entire life, we barely even need to open the menu anymore. If you haven’t been before, it’s probably a good idea to look at the menu before you head over. There are 200+ options, ranging from pho to pretty much everything you can imagine. And it’s not like The Cheesecake Factory where you have 20 pages of items that all taste like garbage. I’ve never ordered anything there I haven’t enjoyed.
We started out with #133 Muc Chien Guoc ($16.95), salt and pepper calamari, which is listed as an entree. It was gone in about 30 seconds. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside calamari is served with sautéed green peppers, dried chills and onions. I like the stir fried veggies, but I don’t even need them. Just give me a big plate covered in fried calamari with some of that peppery sauce and leave me alone.
Another stunning appetizer is the #54 Bahn Xeo ($10.95), two Vietnamese crepes. The crepes are filled with bean sprouts, shrimp and pork then served with a garden’s worth of veggies and a spicy fish sauce. I cannot resist these. I expected that when I was in Singapore I’d be able to find them at every Vietnamese restaurant, but I only found ONE that did. So depressing. Lucky for us St. Louis folk that Mai Lee has these bad boys. They’re crispy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. They’re probably not good for you, but they are light and veggie filled, so I’ll pretend they are. If you start your meal with these two dishes, there’s no way you’re going home unhappy.
I didn’t get to try the #9 Pho Tai ($7.95) or #144 Dau Hu Xao To ($11.95), but I’ve had both so many times it doesn’t matter. Pho is like wine to me; I cannot accurately describe the flavors or explain why it is better than any other pho, but I can tell you if I like it or not. I like Mai Lee’s pho. I like it a lot. The Dau Hu Xao To, otherwise known as golden tofu cooked with mixed vegetables in a black bean sauce hot pot. It’s how you wish your homemade veggie stir fries actually tasted.
My dinner was an off the menu special I didn’t even know existed (as if the 200+ item menu wasn’t big enough). The seafood charred rice. So good. One of my favorite Singapore hawker stand guilty pleasures was the claypot rice with sausage and garlic. This was like the healthier version of that. Chinese black mushrooms, snowpeas, baby bok choy, shrimp, crab, scallops and more rest on a bed of rice in an extremely hot clay pot. Little bits of fried garlic (which are one of the best things in all the food world) are sprinkled on top. If you let it sit for a few minutes while you eat the top, the rice mixed with oyster garlic sauce on the bottom will get crispy and charred. I like to stir it up a bit and mix in some chili. I love the mix of textures and flavors you get in it. It’s also a ton of food. I couldn’t even finish my whole dish.
Another thing I love at Mai Lee are their Bahn Mi’s, which are these incredibly Vietnamese sandwiches. French baguettes filled with some sort of meat–usually roasted chicken or pork–then topped with pate, chili, daikon, cucumber, cilantro and some mayo. They are my favorite. I was totally addicted to NamNam in Singapore. Everyone should tweet at Qui and ask very nicely that he open a chain of Bahn Mi shops in St. Louis.
Mai Lee is loved by the best chefs in St. Louis and apparently most of the people that live in the city. If you try to go for dinner any weekend night, I wish you good luck. You should probably bring your Kindle or iPad, because I guarantee you’re going to be waiting. It’s worth it though.
8396 Musick Memorial Dr
St. Louis, MO 63144