Rick Graefe

For many years, Mai Lee has distinguished itself as the place where foodies, chefs and other culinary types go to get the best, most authentic Asian cuisine around. The restaurant moved from its previous location on Delmar Boulevard to new digs in Richmond Heights in the retail sprawl around Eager Road not too long ago. The exterior of the restaurant blends in with the other buildings in the area and could easily be overlooked as just another storefront. But we discovered the banal exterior belied a veritable cornucopia of delicacies to be found inside.

The Mai Lee menu was expansive, containing literally hundreds of dishes, including all manner of hot and cold appetizers, soups and noodle bowls and various meat and vegetarian-based dinners, as well as unique specialties like do-it-yourself spring-roll kits.

Although the restaurant features both Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine, we decided to limit dinner to just the Vietnamese selections to make the decision-making process a wee bit easier.

The Banh Mi Thit ($4) we ordered was the pork version of the classic Vietnamese sandwich. Truth be told, there wasn’t much pork to be had on ours, but the pickled carrots and onions on top and the crusty French bread it was built on made up for the dearth of meat. It had been a while since we had authentic kim chi, and we were surprised to find this dish, which is so deeply associated with Korea, on a menu of Vietnamese specialties. Maybe there’s a kim chi tradition in Vietnam, as well? Regardless of its origin, the version served up at Mai Lee ($5) helped us recall why it’s one of our favorites. The spicy, rustic Napa cabbage and radish dish was as delicious as it was fiery, and though the menu didn’t specify if it was fermented in the traditional method, it sure tasted like the real deal! After the kim chi, the Bi Cuon ($4), two shredded pork spring rolls, proved to be a real let-down, as they were dry and lacking in flavor.

The Ga Xao Xa Ot ($13) we chose as one of our mains had tender chicken, stir-fried with lemongrass and saté sauce, and topped with onions and scallions. We saved the best part of the feast for last with the Canh Chua Dau Hu ($15). This soup was a steaming amalgam of golden tofu chunks, tomato wedges, pineapple, sprouts, okra and celery, among other delicious bits—all swimming in a delicately flavored lemongrass and tamarind broth. The soup was served in a traditional metal fire pot, and it was the ultimate communal dish, perfect for serving an entire table.

While the food at Mai Lee, for the most part, was a cut above the competition, the service during our visit was lacking. We finally had to ask for a beverage menu since none was provided when we were seated, and the only time we saw our waiter was when he dropped off our check. Dessert will have to wait until next time.

Mai Lee, 8396 Musick Memorial Drive, 645-2835, maileerestaurant.com

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