Let me say this right off the bat: For a restaurant deep in the heart of Little Saigon, the service at Mai's Kitchen is exemplary. In fact, I can't recall the last time I felt so thoroughly doted upon in a Vietnamese restaurant where the average cost for a meal is less than $10 per person.
When I told my family I was taking them there a month after my first visit, I didn't mention the food; I mentioned the service. And I was proven right. The meal came out in about half the time we expected. And though the front-of-the-house staff consisted of only two servers and a host—all of whom spoke perfect English—they managed to check on us at least three times during our meal and refilled our water glasses without having to ask. When we signaled we wanted to take our leftovers home, the host not only boxed and bagged them for us, but he also asked about what we liked and what to try next time.
It may be because the restaurant is small and thus manageable. Mai's is located on the bottom corner of a busy, multitiered building on Bolsa, the kind that seems to exist on every block in Westminster. It's so cramped that when the doors to the kitchen swing open and the cooking aromas inevitably waft out, it makes you salivate uncontrollably. The room seats only around 40, and waits are normal on weekends.
But the service, as it turns out, isn't the only thing that sets Mai's Kitchen apart from other Little Saigon restaurants. Its most important attribute is this: Mai's, to my knowledge, is one of the few (if not the only) eateries in Orange County that specializes in Vietnamese family-style home cooking. These are meals that consist of a soup, a protein and a vegetable dish, all of which is served with a communal pot of rice, just as a typical Vietnamese mother would cook for her household any night of the week. The problem for the non-Vietnamese speaker, however, is that none of the family-style dishes is listed in the English-translated part of the menu.
During my first visit, oblivious to this fact, I ate a satisfying but standard bowl of bún flecked with lemongrass-marinated beef and some bánh bèo chen, eight tiny saucers of steamed rice-flour batter served on a wicker basket. In the meantime, I saw other customers tuck into Sterno-heated pots of soup full of shrimp and taro stems with their distinctive honeycomb matrix of holes.
On my second trip, I looked all over the menu for that soup. When I couldn't find it, I settled on the cha cá Thang Long, turmeric-tinted fish topped with dill. To go with it, I ordered a bowl of bún rieu, rice noodles in an orange broth stocked with cubes of a homemade crab cake embedded in egg. I also ate a near-perfect goi mit—a refreshing mix of jackfruit, herbs and shrimp—with crunchy tapioca crackers. All the while, I eyed other tables as they feasted on sticky spare ribs, verdant plates of stir-fried water spinach and caramel-lacquered fish bubbling in shiny metal pots.
My third visit, I finally got wise to what I was missing. It turns out that all of the good stuff was hidden in plain sight on the last page of the menu, titled "Family Dinner," which, as of this writing, is priced at $21.99 for a two-person meal, $41.99 for a four. For the two-person deal, you choose a soup, a protein and a vegetable dish from a list, of which not a single word is in English.
Since I don't know the language beyond pho toppings, I resorted to pointing at what other people around me were having, and when that failed, I relied on the Yelp app's most useful feature: pictures, which I held up to show the server. I discovered that night that the caramel-lacquered fish was cá kho to, catfish steaks simmered in a glaze of soy, fish sauce and dried chiles. And the taro-stem-and-shrimp soup I saw on my first visit was the canh chua ca hoac tam, a tamarind-soured broth with chunks of pineapple and tomatoes.
One of the best dishes I've encountered so far was a simmered pork belly with hard-boiled eggs. Akin to Filipino adobo, Japanese kakuni and a dozen other Asian variants, it's probably the homiest dish of all and came with a soy-and-fish-sauce flavored broth that turned my rice into manna from heaven.
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I've yet to explore the dozens of other dishes on this "secret" menu, but it has made me realize that until I'm lucky enough to be invited by a Vietnamese family to their home for dinner, Mai's Kitchen and its friendly staff are here. Either way, I know not to expect pho.
Mai's Kitchen, 9039 Bolsa Ave., Ste. 101, Westminster, (714) 898-9889. Open Wed.-Mon., 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$30, food only. Cash only. No alcohol.