Mai Lee's Jay Nguyen: Featured Bartender of the Week

Jun 3, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Welcome to Girl Walks into a Bar, a weekly Gut Check feature that spotlights local bars and bartenders. This week Katie Moulton profiles Mai Lee's Jay Nguyen. Below is a Q&A with Nguyen followed by the recipes for both the Lychee Martini and the Mai Lee Songbird.

Jay Nguyen whips up a Mai Lee Songbird. - Katie Moulton
Katie Moulton
Jay Nguyen whips up a Mai Lee Songbird.

"I love what I do now," says Jay Nguyen of Mai Lee (8396 Musick Memorial Drive, 314-993-3754). "This place has such a strong family feel."

But Nguyen isn't just referring to the welcoming atmosphere of family-run Mai Lee, which was supposedly the St. Louis area's first Vietnamese restaurant when it opened 25 years ago. Nor does he mean the generous portions, low prices and fresh flavors that have attracted a cult of loyal customers who have followed the eatery to its current location -- in the ground level of a parking garage behind the Brentwood Best Buy.

The sense of family behind the bar is more literal for Nguyen, whose sister is engaged to co-owner Qui Tran, so his boss will soon become his brother-in-law. Tran hired Nguyen as bartender a year and a half ago without his having prior experience and sent him to the Bartending Institute in Maryland Heights to solidify his training.

When speaking with Nguyen, the emphasis is always on the bigger picture -- being a bartender in service to the customers above all, providing for his children, striving to be better in work and in life. He skips over the small annoyances of the job, which Nguyen says "saved my life," after hard times that began with getting into trouble while growing up in North St. Louis County and continued through his twenties.

"A lot of people come in and tell me their sad stories," Nguyen says. "And I listen and can understand because I've got my own story."

But let's talk about the lovely vodka-based cocktails Nguyen, who is "not much of a drinker himself," with a liberal pour, mixed for us. This is Girl Walks Into a Bar, after all. First is the signature Lychee Martini, inspired by the unnervingly-beige, thick-textured juicy tropical fruit, which Nguyen calls the "Asian grape." The drink is smooth and refreshing, cut with raspberry vodka, and the lychees are delicious.

The other creation is the Mai Lee Songbird, a summery outdoor drink if there ever was one. It's a long iced cocktail made with three pomegranate-flavored products and cut with lime for a balanced tartness. The drink's name comes from the restaurant's resident "songbird": the younger Tran sister, a local R&B singer-songwriter who has taken the stage name Mai Lee in honor of the family restaurant, of course.

Describe your bartending style in three words. Precise, generous, friendly.

Lychee ("lee-chee") Martini at Mai Lee. - Katie Moulton
Katie Moulton
Lychee ("lee-chee") Martini at Mai Lee.

My bar is the only bar in St. Louis where... The focus is on great Vietnamese food, and hopefully the bar is a bonus.

Girl walks into a bar, orders a ______. She has just earned my undying admiration. I like to listen and pick out drinks that fit what each customer likes. But if I have to pick one cocktail, it would be the lychee martini -- it's very smooth.

Most dumbass - or strange - drink anyone has ever asked for. I will always find the resources to figure out how to make a drink. I'll Google it, use my phone, and I'm not embarrassed to ask the customers. It's really all about what the customer wants.

Other than your own bar, where do you go to get a good drink? And what do you have? The funny thing is, I'm not much of a drinker. I'll kick back a beer or two, and for that, I'll go to Pearl Cafe, which has a huge selection of bottled beer.

If my friends and I must have shots, what should they be? Chocolate cherry bombs. It's a three-layer shot with grenadine, then Kahlua, then vodka. The alcohol hits you first, but then the other layers make it easier.

What's the most exciting or memorable event you've witnessed while tending bar? The most memorable moments are when I've received compliments from customers. Just when they say they enjoy a drink or let me know I'm doing my job right. We do get some excitement with people coming off the Metrolink, such as on Mardi Gras. Once, a guy came in and beat boxed -- and we gave him food for it.

Tell me one thing most people don't know about bartending. It's not all about mixing drinks. Some customers look to you as a shoulder, an open ear -- and I hope to provide that.

Mai Lee Songbird: belting notes of pomegranate. - Katie Moulton
Katie Moulton
Mai Lee Songbird: belting notes of pomegranate.

Lychee Martini 2 oz. Stolichnaya raspberry vodka 1/2 oz. lychee syrup

Shake and strain. Garnish with lychees.

Mai Lee Songbird 1 oz. Charbay pomegranate vodka 1 oz. PAMA pomegranate liqueur Splash of pomegranate juice

Fill with lemon-lime soda. Garnish with lime.