Three decades of business is a major achievement, especially for a small family restaurant. That’s how long Mai Lee has been operating here, and not just eking out a living, but growing a devoted fan base so that if you don’t arrive by 6 or 6:30 p.m, expect to wait. The Vietnamese restaurant first opened in University City, on Delmar Boulevard near McKnight. Then in 2010, it moved to the new mixed-use area near the MetroLink in Brentwood, and business never skipped a beat. It is a favorite of casual diners and chefs alike, who repeatedly cite Mai Lee as a place they frequent when not in their own commercial kitchens.

So what accounts for the loyal following? Most likely it’s the bold flavors (and the liberal doses of sugar in the dishes). The food tastes less ‘westernized’ than at most east Asian restaurants. The salt & pepper dishes ($20-$22) are laden with crushed black pepper and large-grain salt. The protein in these dishes—calamari, shrimp, dungeness crab—has an incredible ‘dry-fried’ crust that is super crisp but not the least bit burnt. And they include an intriguing clutter of flavorings: hot chili peppers, crisp garlic, scallions, all also coated with salt and pepper and oh-so-delicious to chomp down on once your protein has been gobbled up. And you almost want to chug the dipping sauce, a blend of sweetened vinegar and black pepper.

Then there are the coconut milk-curry dishes, which are intensely flavored with pungent curry spices. Our Tom Xao Lan ($19), shrimp stir-fry, had a bite that wasn’t exactly hot but had a distinct tang from cumin, coriander and other heavy spices. It was simple in its other ingredients—wood ear mushrooms in a plentiful quantity—and tons of chopped peanuts for a salty, crunchy, starchy addition.

If you prefer less saucy dishes, don’t miss the Vit Quay ($17), Vietnamese style roasted half duck. Super crispy, it comes hacked into pieces right through the bone, so you pretty much have to eat it with your fingers, while dipping each scrumptious hunk of meat and skin (and a little fat) into Mai Lee ginger soy sauce (doused with sugar). Also sugary and very tasty is the Tom Rang Muoi ($22), a generous plateful of stir-fried shrimp in “butter garlic egg sauce.”

A traditional Vietnamese street food dish, Bun Xao Rau Cai ($8), was tasty with its sweet and vinegary flavors infusing a bowl of rice vermicelli, mixed veggies and crushed peanuts. It’s a dish often served with a fried egg roll on top, or sliced roasted meats.

My favorite plate of the evening, though, was Dau Hu Sauce Me ($13.95), fried tofu in tamarind sauce. Thick slabs of silken tofu had an appealing dry-fried golden crust and came piping hot, releasing their flavor when you bit into them. A dipping sauce of sweet vinegar (the same that accompanied our salt & pepper calamari) was thick with black pepper.

There was one little miss of the evening, our Bo Lui ($6.95), beef shish kebob skewers, which had a charred flavor. But overall, Mai Lee lived up to its reputation.

amuse bouche
the scene | Longtime Vietnamese restaurant
the chef | Qui Tran
the prices | $4-$13 starters, $9-$14 soup bowls, $14-$22 dinnerstable_mai-lee_qui-lee-tran_3-copy
the favorites | Salt & Pepper Calamari (or Shrimp), Golden Tofu in Tamarind Sauce, Roast Half Duck, Shrimp Stir-Fry with Butter and Egg Sauce

chef chat » qui tran
culinary pedigree | I went to Mai Lee University by watching  my mother over the years!
favorite ingredient | Either soy or fish sauce
favorite cookbook | East Meets West by Ming Tsai
favorite st. louis restaurant | I have a list of about 20!
most memorable dining experience | Many great ones, but most recently, the tasting menu at Sydney Street Cafe
guilty pleasure | Chocolate Malt Shake from Crown Candy

8396 musick memorial drive | 314.645.2835