The new Mai Lee has opened, as we noted last month. And it really is new. The old favorites – excellent Vietnamese food, still at moderate prices, and a hard-working staff – will seem happily familiar, but there's more. Lots more. One room holds a real bar, with some high tables that provide extra seats for diners when needed; the dining area is much larger and with more space between tables, the lighting less industrial. The kitchen (ask and they'll show it off) is considerably larger, the staff more numerous. The menu has grown as well, with 202 separate dishes, plus some daily specials. There are, for example, four different kinds of banh mi sandwiches, twice as many as the last time we looked. About 80 Chinese offerings are available, too.
Things are busy, and with a no-reservation policy we'd advise patience, dining early or late, and being flexible about where you're seated. Even lunch is rocking, according to Qui Tran, one of the owners and son of the founders, who are often still on site. We're not surprised. This area's office space is increasing and the only Asian cuisine in the immediate area comes from some Americanized chains.
Just where is it? The address, 8396 Musick Memorial Drive, reveals nothing. Under the new highway design, southbound Hanley drivers cannot make a right turn onto Eager Road. The next block, with a light, is a St. Louis special -- east of Hanley, it's Dale Avenue; going west it is Musick Memorial Drive. Turn right and the restaurant is on the left, in a garage with free parking. Coming from the south, make a left from Hanley. From the east, take Dale, and cross Hanley to be on Musick. From the west on Eager Road, turn right onto Musick at the Best Buy store. From the west on I-64 or U.S. 40, get off on Hanley and make the first right on Musick.,
Dinner was a delight from start to finish.
Yes, the spring rolls are still there, light and tasty, with a thin wrapping. But we also fell in love with banh tom chien, whole shrimp in a thick sweet potato batter with shaggy shreds of the sweet potato getting particularly crisp on the ends. Unlike some sweet potato fries, these have a real sweet potato taste, which melds well with the shrimp. It's an excellent dish, very satisfying. Our photo shows a double order, four of the cakes, which are about three or four inches in diameter.
We were also taken with the banh bao, a steamed bun the size of a small grapefruit. The soft white dough held hard-cooked egg, some sweet sausage and seasoned ground pork that resembles hamburger. The bun arrived in a plastic wrapper and sat on a paper lining. Eager eaters, be advised. The system is sensible; it would take far too long to make these to order and steam them a sufficient time, so they're done in advance and reheated. No deductions for that, since the bun, and the filling, were juicy and flavorful. Another shrimp appetizer, banh cong, described as a shrimp cake, came as a couple of muffin-shaped, deep-fried cakes partially cut in quarters, with some greens and the golden nuoc cham dipping sauce, sweet-tart, slightly spicy, that arrives with many dishes. The shrimp cakes were heavy and didn't have much flavor.
The Old China Hand and the ever-delightful Mrs. Hand ordered two versions of xao chua, the mixed vegetables in a lemon sauce, favorites from the previous location. The shrimp (we're discovering an inadvertent theme here) may have outshone the pork in the glossy, lemon-laden sauce. Both had peppers, onions, and carrots, but in the pork version, the meat was a little chewier than we'd like. Still, give us that sauce, and we would find tennis shoes palatable. Main dish salads are now formally available, and the goi ga nuong, grilled chicken slices atop the shredded vegetables, mainly cabbage, anointed with more nuoc cham, were pleasing and a nice low-fat dish that tasted cool and refreshing.
And then there was the Vietnamese-style roasted duck. Rubbed with spices, but very different from the Peking duck, or roasted duck in Chinese restaurants. There seemed to be almost no fat, the meat succulent and tender, the skin ranging from crispy to chewy but always packed with great deal of flavor. It absolutely sang, almost on key, and if it had talked, it could have sold us insurance. The ginger soy sauce alongside was nice, but mostly unnecessary, so se-duck-tive was the bird.
The new Mai Lee also has a wine list, short but effective. Tran has a number of wines from District of Columbia importer Peter Weygandt, and his name on a bottle, like that of Kermit Lynch, is a big plus. A Riesling, with just a bare hint of sweetness, was delicious with the Vietnamese cusine; a Pinot Blanc was good, but a little too austere for the spicing. The wines are moderately priced, and rumor has it that it will soon be expanded.
The new Mai Lee was worth the wait, believe us. And a weekend night crowd showed a superb mix of adults and children, grandparents and grandchildren, all ages and colors and sizes, and speaking many languages. A joyous experience.
8396 Musick Memorial Drive, Brentwood
Lunch & Dinner Tues.-Sun
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes