Mai oh Mai

Mai Phom opened the first popular Vietnamese restaurant in Dallas. She deserves a medal.

Those were the days when ethnic food meant Mexican food, unless it meant Szechuan. Now Vietnamese is practically mainstream and even has at least one almost upscale representative.

Mainly, it has become habitual; many of us go out for Vietnamese as often as we go out for Mexican. So it seems strange to me that Mai, who was a pioneer, is now relatively unknown. Her little restaurant in Snider Plaza is practically a secret.

Vietnamese food has the same addictive properties that Mexican food does, without the fat overload. I’m sure someone from the government will speak up soon and tell me I’m eating under a delusion–that there’s as much fat in an Imperial roll as there is a tub of margarine–but Vietnamese food seems healthier. There’s vegetables in it and everything.

The place Mai founded in East Dallas still carries her name, but these days Mai herself is cooking at Mai’s Oriental Restaurant. It’s called “Oriental” because when Mai took it over it was actually a Chinese restaurant, though not a very good one, and half the menu is still Chinese, though still not great.

A couple of stir fries are lovely–chicken with broccoli is gently scented with sesame oil, the light wine sauce bathing the pure white chicken and bright green broccoli in an ethereal version of a plebeian dish. But other things, like lemon chicken, play up the worst qualities of the dish. (Lemon chicken is dangerously close to Chicken McNuggets at the best of times; Mai’s serves the deep-fried chunks in a lettuce-lined basket with a dipping sauce. All that’s missing is the toy.)

That’s okay. Mostly when we go to Mai’s, we turn straight to the Vietnamese menu and never look back. It’s not a long list; we start with Imperial rolls, lovely translucent rice wrappers around a crisp dry salad of cilantro, sprouts, and lettuce. Mai makes them with shrimp or chicken. The spring rolls are good, too, but the crab and cheese-filled wontons remind me of 1950s Hawaiian party fare–the kind of food Cher loved in Moonstruck.

My suggestion is to check out Mai’s suggestions: for instance, her famous “hot chic”–that’s what you call it unless you prefer to ask for it by name, Ga Xao Xa Ot. What you’ll get is tender strips of white chicken in a scorcher chili sauce that bathes your burning mouth with the soft scents of lemon grass.

Com Ga Noi Dat–you can call it a hot pot–is a fat little pot full of mushrooms and chicken, slippery, crunchy onion squares, with a sweet, elusive aroma from the banana flowers. I think it’s that seductive combination of sweet aroma with fiery taste that’s so appealing about this food–your nose tells you one thing, your mouth, another. The old-fashioned curry is cooked in coconut milk, yellow with turmeric and crunchy with peanuts; you wonder what that wonderful sweet taste under the hot and sour soup is and fish around to be surprised by a piece of pineapple.

Mai’s is a tiny place–only a dozen tables or so–and dry. But if her restaurant is hard to find, she is nearly always there, and you can’t beat the food when you need a Vietnamese fix.

–Mary Brown Malouf

Mai’s Oriental Restaurant, 6912 Snider Plaza, 361-8220. Open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Mai’s Oriental:
Spring or Imperial Roll, four or more, $1 each
Vietnameses Hot and Sour Soup $3.50
Hot Chic $7.95
Hot Pot $7.95