Saturday, January 22, 2022

Eating Garlic Beef at Mai’s Vietnamese Restaurant - Mai's Immigrant Story

Mai's Vietnamese Garlic Beef Bo Luc Lac

"...Inevitably, South Vietnam’s dismal economy, rank with corruption and inflation, forced party apparatchiks to embrace the tools of capitalism, designer bags and all. But by this time Mai’s family was successful in a new land..." (Virginia Billeaud Anderson eats Garlic Beef at Mai's Vietnamese Restaurant in Houston, owned by 
Mai Nguyen, and describes the dish and the owner's immigrant story. Fun inspiring history.)

Eating Garlic Beef at Mai’s Vietnamese Restaurant - Mai's Immigrant Story

“My parents said, come on now, we are all packed, we’re gonna go to the boat, we’re gonna get away. There’s gonna be a war.”

Captured on video, Mai Nguyen remembered April 29, 1975, the day she fled Vietnam with her parents and seven siblings. They departed one day before the fall of Saigon, when the South Vietnamese handed over the reins of power to the Viet Cong, and communist backed troops galivanted around Saigon in Russian made tanks. Once in control, the communists began to usher in Ho Chi Minh’s Marxist Leninist policies such as confiscation and redistribution of businesses and land, ideologically impelled by the purpose of liberating the masses. Predictably, the party agenda included “re-education” of citizens. A year later the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam changed the name of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City. Inevitably, South Vietnam’s dismal economy, rank with corruption and inflation, forced party apparatchiks to embrace the tools of capitalism, designer bags and all. But by this time Mai’s family was successful in a new land. 

Mai Nguyen Owner Mai's Vietnamese Restaurant

After arriving, the family went to South Dakota. Two years later they landed in Houston where the climate was familiar. Here Mai’s parents Phin and Phac Nguyen started a pool hall and named it “Mai,” after their oldest daughter, because her name was easy for English speakers to pronounce. Further, it was their hedge for success in America, meaning "golden flower," an emblem of prosperity and luck. When Mai was 13 in 1978, she began working in the business, which expanded into offering simple food items to pool-shooting customers. The menu continued to grow, the pool hall got tossed out, and the restaurant moved to its current Milam Street location. Today Mai’s Vietnamese Restaurant enjoys international acclaim and media coverage including the New York Times, Food and Wine magazine, National Geographic, and Chef Anthony Bourdain’s Cook’s Tour on the Food Network. Mai’s is recognized as the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in Houston.

Unlike wishy-washy indecisive me, Donnie knows precisely what he wants to eat. On Wednesday night he wanted Vietnamese food. “We’re going to Mai’s on Milam.” Once seated, I drank a glass of Chardonnay and Don drank a Kirin beer and we shared Spring Rolls stuffed with grilled pork, vermicelli, lettuce and bean sprouts for our appetizer. Following that, we each ate a plate of “Bo Luc Lac,” which according to the menu is Mai’s signature dish of Garlic Beef, "made with chunks of tender filet mignon seasoned and marinated to perfection, stir fried with garlic, onion, bell pepper and jalapeno and topped over a bed of lettuce and tomato in a vinaigrette dressing.” With our entrées, I drank a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and Donnie drank another Kirin.

As blog readers know, I’m not a food critic. I say unapologetically though that Mai’s Garlic Beef beats out the other joints in flavor and tenderness. Presumably Mai’s serves a high-quality prime beef, concocts a superb marinade, and has total mastery over the grilling. I strongly recommend this dish to my readers.

Mai's Co-founder Phin Nguyen. Passed away 2017

Mai's Bo Luc Lac

In 1991, Phin and Phac Nguyen wanted to retire. Mai who was 26 years old purchased the restaurant that bore her name. Eventually her daughter Anna Tham became Mai’s general manager, a position she held for many years until recently entering law school. With success and a larger staff, Mai didn’t have to work as hard. Others were there to cook. It didn’t stop her from bussing tables and washing dishes and cleaning vegetables. When it was suggested that the owner didn’t have to clean vegetables, she said, “No, I don’t have to, but I love to.” In June 2020, the fourth generation entered the business.

Anna Pham was General Manager
for over 18 years

Thirsty Thursday at Mai's

There was however one hellacious setback. On February 15, 2010, a fire destroyed the business. Video captures firemen on tall truck ladders aiming gushing water at the burning building. The interior was devastated, but the firemen saved the exterior brick walls. Fortunately, no one was injured. Mai, her mother Phin and the entire family cried while they watched from the sidewalk. The Houston Chronicle’s front page article about the fire called Mai's Restaurant a “Houston landmark.”

Unbearably tragic. Although people with the courage to abandon home and possessions so not to be puppets of dictators aren’t likely to crater. The fire wouldn’t defeat them. They rebuilt the restaurant.

It has a large bar and second level banquet room. Their re-opening took place on April 16, 2011. Ribbon cutting, speeches and lion dances with drummers were part of the celebration. Politicians and loyal customers crowded in. Mayor Annise Parker’s functionaries relayed Her Honor’s official congratulations and handed over the Mayor’s proclamation of “Mai’s Restaurant Day.” The family presented a donation to the Houston Firefighters’ injured children’s charity.

One senses from her speech at the celebration that Mai’s daughter Anna feels deeply the epic implications of her family’s trajectory. She told the crowd she was humbled and proud, grateful and blessed, to say they rebuilt after a tumultuous year. “Today would not have been possible without the dedication and sacrifice by both my mother and my grandmother, they are the definition of strength and courage and without their perseverance there would not be a Mai’s Restaurant.”

Sweet Donnie at Mai's
Mai's Combination Platter 

If you want to discuss this blog article or chat with me, please email me at Would love to hear from you - Virginia 
Also, find my recent mag articles - Intown mag.  Author link : 

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