Friday, July 21, 2006

Mai's Restaurant

Years ago, when I was an impoverished Rice undergrad, I lived in a dilapidated old manse in what then called "Little Saigon," and is now known, somewhat more blandly, as Midtown. Of course, the generic new name is somewhat appropriate, given that most of the Vietnamese-Americans who lived in the neighborhood have since left and been replaced by hordes of yuppie singles. Although not all of the neighborhood's kinks have been ironed out, the local crackheads seem to have reached stasis with, if they are not now actually outnumbered by, the number of mid-century modern "antique" shops.

Depending on your point of view, this is considered progress.

One thing that hasn't changed is the ready availability of excellent Vietnamese food. Van Loc, Mai's, Les Givral's, and other restaurants bear witness to what was once a substantial, if not particularly vibrant, Vietnamese neighborhood.

Perhaps to better attract the yuppie hordes, most of the remaining restaurants have cleaned up considerably since the 1990s, none more so than Mai's. When I lived around the corner from it in 1992, Mai's was a clean if nondescript joint serving delicious and inexpensive Vietnamese cuisine. Today, Mai's is still clean and still serves Vietnamese food, often delicious, though the prices have gone up and the decor has gotten, ahem, "fancier."

The pho at Mai's is, in my opinion, the best in town. It's all about the broth. Mai's pho broth is clear, intensely flavored, and fragrant. With it comes a heaping pile of bean sprouts, jalapenos, mint, cilantro, and lime wedges, as well as a selection of sauces to further doctor the soup. The frisson provided by the MSG content gets your heart pounding faster than a can of Red Bull, and there's hardly anything better on one of Houston's rare cold days. And the barbecue pork spring rolls are insanely delicious: tender, chewy, deeply-flavored pork adds a zing to the (usually) freshly-prepared rolls, and the accompanying sauce is just right.

But my Lord, people, the service sucks.

"Brusque" is a eupemism that you often hear applied to restaurants with good food and bad service. The reviewer likes the place, loves the food, can't stop going back, and feels almost apologetic about criticizing the poor service that he gets despite his obvious loyalty to the restaurant. The service at Mai's used to be "brusque." Now it's "offensive."

For example, at lunch today the waitress threw the menus at us and walked off. That was it -- that's your welcome to the lunch service. And when I say "threw the menus at us," I don't mean that in a sissy, "I-wasn't-warmly-greeted-by-my-waitron!" kind of way. I mean that she threw them at us in a way that suggested she meant us harm. My lunch companion and I just looked at each other, startled, and burst out laughing.

Now, okay, it was 12:15 on a Friday and Mai's was busy. And that's the problem. Mai's is always busy. Round the clock. Lunchtime, dinner time, late at night. And so they've stopped giving a shit. But we keep going back. Why? I mean, the food is good but it's nearly as good at Van Loc, where they don't physically attack you. I stopped going to Burger King altogether six years ago because the woman behind the counter at the BK on South Carollton Avenue in New Orleans put mayonnaise on my Whopper after I specifically asked her not to. Presto -- done with the entire, 23,980-outlet chain. Screw you, Flame Broiled Whopper. Adios, Reconstituted Onion Rings (which, to be honest, I miss desperately).

But I keep going back to Mai's.

(Oh, and the waitress is the other problem. Two weeks ago, I was there with my boss and received the same treatment. Well, actually, she treated the Boss Man poorly, not me, which was kind of entertaining except that I had suggested that we eat there. Fortunately, he held it against her, not me. I think. We'll find out come bonus time.)

So, take this as my lily-livered, half-hearted threat, Mai's. You're on probation. Either start treating your customers like People Who Pay You Money, and not like muggers, or else. Seriously. I mean it.


At 8:26 AM, Blogger Anne said...

I gotta disagree with the cleanliness aspect. I opened up my leftovers after leaving Mai's one evening, to discover a roach staring back at me, alive, enjoying my noodles. I can't go back to a place like that, even if it was a fluke.

At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sure the news has made it around, but I thought I'd post it here just in case. Mai's burned down, and last I saw, it's still gone.

Also, I always had very friendly (but not terribly prompt) service here. Maybe it's that one lady -- the hostess was standoffish to me, too.


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