Mai’s Vietnamese and Hawaiian
1967 E. Main Street
Ventura
652-2061 
$6-$20

Mai’s, oh my!
How I have missed thee!
In a dimly lit dive,
You surprised me.

What looked to be tiki,
Inside was much more.
Although not tres chic-ee,
A great noodle house score.

But alas, you closed,
And I said good bye.
My noodles disposed,
A tear in my eye.

Hooray, you’re back again!
You’ve reopened your doors,
I’m no longer chagrined,
My taste buds all yours.

It is rare when I come across a restaurant that makes me want to write poetry. However, little did I realize how much I actually missed the quaint little noodle house known simply as Mai’s.

It was about a year ago when I found myself suffering from severe pho noodle soup withdrawal. After having fallen in love with the warm tasty dish many years before in Atlanta, Ga., I was desperate to find one locally when a Google search for noodle houses turned up Mai’s.

It wasn’t much to look at — a boring storefront on East Main Street in Midtown with a secret entrance from the back where you had to travel down a long, foreboding hallway to get inside the restaurant. The inside was dark, with a Hawaiian motif, offset by fireplace and upright piano. No matter how awkward the setting was, the food couldn’t be beat — especially when you have a noodle soup addiction.

Just a few months after my first visit, Mai, the owner of the restaurant, informed me she had lost her lease and was going to have to shut down. First, she said she was going to relocate to Green Market. Then she told me she found a little place in Midtown, next door to Green Market, where she would reopen a couple of months down the road.

After jumping through many hoops for the Ventura County Health Department, she was finally able to reopen her restaurant nearly six months later. And this time, everything was right.

From Main Street, Mai’s is easy to spot — a bright purple awning with large plate glass windows inviting customers to come inside and a mural of a sunset on the side of the building in the alley way, done as a courtesy by one of her customers. The restaurant is light and airy, with Asian influenced paintings and decorations, raised tables (similar to bar tables) and a large, flat-screen television. The bar can seat a handful of people, and the night I went there, apparently, it was a fun spot to be.

With the improved clean and inviting space, my companion and I were excited to try out the food. Since we had never had anything but the pho soup when Mai’s was at the other location, we opted for an appetizer — the Vietnamese crepe, a crisp yellow crepe filled with shrimp, pork, sprouts and mushrooms. What we were expecting and what we got were two different things, and by far, not in any way a disappointment. The crepe was just as described in the menu, but came with a pile of leaf lettuce and herbs. I cut up pieces of my crepe and wrapped each piece up in the lettuce and dipped it in a clear sweet but slightly sour sauce that came with it. Delish!

My companion ordered the “special” pho, which is a noodle soup that comes with thin steak, brisket and meatballs in a beef broth. I chose the Hue’s style pho soup, which was similar to the special pho but not with as many varieties of meat, and comes in a spicier beef broth from the Hue region, as indicated by the menu.

While the service was a bit slower than I remember, given that Mai’s had only been back in business for about a week when we made our first visit to the new place, I wasn’t going to hold it against the restaurant. But when our soup finally arrived, with a mound of sprouts, fresh basil, jalapeños and slices of lemon, it was extremely difficult to pace myself. Like any good dish, it can disappear in a matter of seconds if one is not careful. I doused my soup with hoison, a spicy barbecue sauce, and sriracha, a tear-inducing hot sauce, and dug in. Mind you, the Hue’s style doesn’t need any extra flavor; I just can’t help my need to heat.

In a few short minutes, our soup was gone, and I found myself nibbling on the broken pieces of sprouts and noodles that simply would not cooperate with spoon. My companion had similar issues, eating the tiny pieces of leftovers, just wanting to taste that warm, appetizing broth again.

We were thinking about ordering fresh young coconut milk for dessert, but decided we had had our fill of carbs for the evening.

While I have heard that the menu is only about half of what it is used to be at the former location, I would say it doesn’t detract from what is offered on the menu now — a long interesting list of appetizers, entrees, sandwiches, Hawaiian dishes and, of course, Mai’s “famous” pho noodle soups.

Nevertheless, I’m certain some regulars will miss the old tiki lounge style and menu, but the latest reincarnation is, to me at least, a better version of its former self. The food and the atmosphere complement each other, and the staff, with the exception of a couple of new servers, are all the same, and that in itself is worth at least dropping by to say, “Hi.”

 

michael@vcreporter.com