Mai Lee (8396 Music Memorial Drive, Brentwood; 314-645-2835) isn't simply a job for chef Qui Tran. It's his legacy.
His mother, Lee, founded the restaurant in 1985, eight years after the family had fled near-certain death in Vietnam. He spent his childhood washing dishes and papering houses and cars with copies of the menu. Though he initially resisted making a career in the restaurant industry, he realized that it was what he "was bred to do."
Under his stewardship, Mai Lee is more popular than ever. Its Brentwood location is much larger than the original University City spot, but is still packed at lunch and dinner.
And, yes, Mom still checks in to see how her son and his staff are doing.
"She's an old immigrant woman," Tran says and laughs. "You're not getting her out of here ever. As much as you try to."
Tran and I met in an empty Mai Lee during its one closed day earlier this week to talk about his family's remarkable journey from Vietnam to St. Louis (read part one for that story), his incredible and infectious enthusiasm for the St. Louis restaurant scene and its chefs, why we shouldn't be afraid of MSG and much, much more.
What's a typical meal at home for you? My wife's a phenomenal cook. Her family had a restaurant. Her grandmother was incredible -- made some of the best soups. She's learned it from her grandmother. (They're a central Vietnamese people; we're southern. It's different recipes, different things.)
We like to do tamarind-style soups, savory and sour. We'll do a lot of soups -- or caramelized meats, very traditional stuff. Or I'll have a nice charcuterie plate at home with all these awesome cheeses from the Wine Merchant. But we haven't cooked much at home just because it's so awesome [to have the chance to say] "Let's go to Brasserie tonight!" or "Let's go somewhere!"
So you're as likely to go out on your off-night (Monday) as stay home? [laughs] I always say to my friends, "Why the hell aren't you open on Mondays?", and they're like, "Why aren't you open on Mondays?" [laughs] We try to eat out and support the local guys as much as we can.
Any guilty pleasures? Something we'd be surprised you like? My guilty pleasure has got to be cheese. That's not good for my waistline, but I love cheese.
What's on top of your pizza? Right now my favorite topping on a pizza is the "Roman" pizza at Pastaria. It's so simple. I cannot get enough of that pizza. I can't live without it. I crave it. I literally want that damn "Roman" all the time.
(The "Roman" comes with tomato, garlic, bacon, mozzarella and pecorino cheeses and chiles. It is, indeed, awesome.)
What's your drink of choice? Coconut water. It's my go-to. Well, and Champagne. Not together. I'm a big wino: Champagne, Burgundy and southern Rhone. I'm not a big cocktail drinker. I'm a big French wine guy. I will always get a good glass of wine over a cocktail.
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