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My Oh Mai 

Making a fine mess with savory Vietnamese dishes

I'm not an exit person. Thus, the names of the back-to-back shopping centers which so handily roll off the tongues of my friends (who do live off the exits) evade me. Unfortunately, I call shopping centers by the name of a restaurant, as in "The shopping center where X is located." This is particularly dangerous since restaurants - heck, even grocery stores - come and go in the Lake District with alarming frequency.

Off Exit 28 is a small shopping strip, built before the mega-shopping areas. Only a small sign lets the passerby know that something foody is afoot. The Lake is not known for its ethnic offerings; only a few Asian-American entrepreneurs have tried. But in June 2004, owners Keith and Son Hoang opened the 90-seat Mai Cafe, Vietnamese Fine Dining, reportedly the first Vietnamese restaurant in the area. (Note: This Mai Cafe should not be confused with the Japanese Mai on South Boulevard.)

The Hoang brothers took a paint brush to the woodwork of this space, which has seen a few incarnations, and gave the interior crisp, clean, white lines. Yet the interior still has the spare — verging on bare — feel. Or perhaps that's just the feel of this particular shopping center. A long bar area frames one wall while the opposing side wall offers a series of built-in booths, which can afford diners total privacy or impound havoc-wreaking children.

The Hoang brothers commissioned a friend to buy visual art from the streets of Saigon. One painting depicts a village street scene; another is a lake in the afternoon. This artwork is a charming and inviting aspect of Mai Cafe.

"We wanted the place to look like the Vietnamese restaurants in California," stated Keith Hoang. "And we offer those kinds of dishes as well." He noted that while many of the Vietnamese restaurants in Charlotte serve traditional Vietnamese or, as he out it, "Grandma food," Mai offers contemporary Vietnamese cuisine. "Like in California, our menu is updated with seafood and fondue." In charge of the kitchen is Jon Tang, a Hoang cousin from California, where he worked in the kitchens of several Vietnamese restaurants.

As with other Asian cuisines, Vietnamese dishes need to balance the five "flavors": sour, salty, sweet, hot and bitter. The hallmarks of this fresh and fragrant cuisine are the char-grilled meats, poultry and seafood which are then wrapped in vegetable leaves (such as iceberg lettuce leaves) or rice paper and then dipped in a variety of sauces. Herbs give Vietnamese food its special character. You won't find the skimpy flecks of herbs offered in some restaurants. Here, expect voluminous leafy herbs to arrive with your food. But you don't need to know any of this to enjoy the sensory bombardment of tamarind and lemongrass, or fire-breathing chilies tamed by cooling lettuce leaves. Besides, the menu is in English and the staff is trained to coach the innocent.

You also won't need to rack up debt on the plastic either, with satays only $4 and the majority of entrees less than $14 (most around $11). The menu at Mai is long and wide-ranging, but it works. Not all Vietnamese traditions have been tossed to the wind. First up were the tender grilled chicken skewers. Even better were the quickly devoured lettuce wraps filled with a savory chicken mix.

Many of the items are traditional and interactive: wrap, roll, dip and eat. I like this clever approach to food, especially since it's hard to quibble with the kitchen when I was the fool who combined ingredients or splashed on too much nuoc mam cham (fish sauce).

For entrees, the large wrap 'n roll dish, a Vietnamese burrito, is a crowd pleaser. With food enough for two, if not three, a large platter arrives filled with mint, cilantro, lettuce leaves, pickled carrot, slices of cucumbers, shredded pickled daikon radish, pineapple, soft rice noodles and crisp bean spouts. Add any combination of these to the freshly dunked and softened rice paper. Then add piquant char-grilled chicken with lemon grass and onions, which arrive on a sizzling fajita skillet. Next roll it up, dunk and eat.

Another hit is the clay pot of chicken curry, a substitute for duck on one occasion. This raucous blend of lemongrass, spices, sugar and onions in a thin curry sauce with big chucks of devilishly hot chicken is fiery, but worth the weeping.

Even though the booths seem ample, when you order a variety of the interactive foods and their entourage of platters and dipping sauces, the server may struggle to place platters, wanting to remove bowls that you may not be quite ready to surrender. Multi-tiered stands would be helpful.

Mai Cafe offers a variety of mixed drinks; beers, including Asian; and a short wine list, with glasses offered as well.

I heard it once said that in the East, chefs believe that the messier the tablecloth, the more successful the meal. To further facilitate this, our server plopped down an unending collection of dipping sauces. From the look of the tabletop when we left Mai Cafe, I would have to say our meal was resoundingly successful.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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