St. Louis’ first Vietnamese restaurant, Mai Lee, is owned and operated by the Tran family, who emigrated from Vietnam in the 1980s. Lee Tran opened Mai Lee in 1985, and she is in the kitchen each day with her son, Qui, who is well known in the St. Louis culinary scene for his generous spirit and dedication to delicious food. On any given day, you’ll find the city’s best chefs bellied up to the bar at Mai Lee, enjoying a bowl of pho bo vien, the traditional beef noodle soup, or deep-fried shrimp wrapped in rice paper with herbs and nuóc châm.

When Qui found out we were heading to Cần Thơ, he reached out to his aunt, Phuong Vo, who was living in Cần Thơ and has since moved to St. Louis. We were invited to have dinner in their beautiful home, and in between toasts of Heineken (“Mot, hai, ba, yo!” or “One, two, three, yo!”  was our toast that evening before each sip of cold beer), we feasted on food fresh from local rivers and fields. Head- and tail-on shrimp steamed in beer, sweet-and-sour catfish soup, a simple chicken dish made with chicken raised only on rice and caramelized catfish were served alongside steamed rice and fresh fruit.

Vietnamese Style Garlic Shrimp

Serves | 6 to 8 |

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup diced yellow onions
  • 1 lb shrimp, head on
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • ¼ Tbsp salt
  • ¼ Tbsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp rice wine
  • 1 Tbsp sesame oil
  • ½ cup fried shallots

| Preparation | Heat a large skillet with a bit of oil. Add garlic and onions and sweat them until translucent and fragrant, but not brown. Add shrimp and sauté for 1 minute. Add water, then sugar, salt and pepper. Allow liquid to reduce, and when it begins to caramelize, add rice wine and sesame oil. Add fried shallots, shake to combine and serve.

Caramelized Catfish

Serves | 4 to 6 |

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp minced ginger
  • 1 lb skinless catfish fillets (about 1-inch thick)
  • 1½ cup water
  • 1 Tbsp molasses
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • ¼ Tbsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp fish sauce
  • ¼ cup fried shallots
  • ½ Tbsp freshly ground black pepper
  •     steamed rice (to serve)

| Preparation | Heat a large skillet with a bit of oil. Add garlic and ginger and sauté until fragrant. Then add catfish and just slightly brown fillets on both sides. Add water and then add molasses, sugar, salt and fish sauce. Allow ingredients to caramelize and add fried shallots. Transfer to serving plates, season with pepper and serve with steamed rice.

Canh Chua Ca (Lemongrass-tamarind soup with catfish)

Serves | 4 to 6 |

  • 4 cups water
  • 1 lb skinless catfish fillets
  • 3 Tbsp minced lemongrass
  • 1 Tbsp tamarind powder
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • ½ Tbsp salt
  • 1 tomato, sliced into 6 wedges
  • ½ cup diced fresh pineapple
  • 1 stalk celery, sliced
  • 1 cup peeled, sliced elephant ear stalks
  • ¼ cup minced cilantro
  • 1 Tbsp fried garlic

| Preparation | In a large pot, boil water. Add catfish and cook through, then remove and reserve in a separate bowl. Be sure not to overcook fish. Skim the pot, then add lemongrass, tamarind powder, sugar and salt. Stir, taste and adjust seasoning as desired. It should have a fresh sweet-and-sour flavor. Add tomato, pineapple, celery and elephant ear stalks and cook until crisp-tender. Add cilantro. Pour soup into a bowl, add catfish and top with fried garlic.

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