“I spent two years in college doing nothing I was supposed to be doing in college, so I decided to try my hand at the family business.” We can all be thankful that Qui Tran’s time in college was fleeting. That family business he’s referring to is the venerable Mai Lee, St. Louis’ first Vietnamese restaurant and arguably its best. Tran’s mother, Lee, opened the restaurant in 1985, and since then it’s evolved into a culinary hub where, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot our city’s culinary greats getting takeout for their crews or sitting at the bar, devouring a steaming bowl of pho.
For those unfamiliar, what differentiates Vietnamese cuisine? Vietnamese cuisine stands out from the rest of the Asian cuisines because of [its] strong European influence, particularly from the French, due to years of colonization. It is a harmonious balance of sweet, salty and sour.
How “authentic” are you able to make the dishes? Our dishes are just as you would find them if you were invited into a southern Vietnamese home. Luckily now, all of the ingredients are easily accessible.
Favorite go-to dish on the menu? Pho tai, the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup.
What should someone looking for a truly unique, authentic dish order? Canh chua (lemongrass-tamarind soup with shrimp or fish).
What do you make yourself when you’re off the clock? Packaged ramen noodles (only Asian brands) or a plate of cured meats and cheeses.
What’s it like working with family? Just like working in any other business, there are ups and downs, but a great thing is being able to see each other more often than not.
Any food or drink that you just do not like? I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to trying new foods, but I can’t really wrap my head around the concept of eating testicles.
Mai Lee is known as a place where industry folks come when they’re not working – what draws them? Same thing that draws me. My mom’s cooking.
Favorite food memory? It’s a tie between the smells of my mother’s cooking growing up or the 3½-hour lunch at Le Comptoir du Relais during my honeymoon in Paris.
Favorite place to hang out on your day off? At home on the couch with my dog.
Would you ever want to open another restaurant or a bar? Yes, definitely another Vietnamese establishment, but I’m still working the concept in my head.
What’s in your fridge at home? Lots of Champagne at the ready [and] not much else right now.
When you think about your life 10 years from now, what do you hope for? I still hope to win the lottery; otherwise I’ll see you at Mai Lee.
Mai Lee, 8396 Musick Memorial Drive, Richmond Heights, 314.645.2835, maileerestaurant.com