Stepping Out: Mai Lee

| Stepping Out Columnist

Rating: 5/5 stars

8440 Delmar Blvd
St. Louis, MO 63124

Go to Mai Lee. Right now. Seriously, go. I honestly would not be offended if you stopped reading my review to go eat there.

I’ve recently been trying to figure out which eateries in the local area are best for college students. In my mind, there are several criteria to consider: quality, variety and affordability are the most important. Mai Lee fits all of these and more.

Located on Delmar, right near Interstate 170, this restaurant was the first to introduce Vietnamese cuisine to the St. Louis area, but it certainly hasn’t rested on its laurels since. The visual appearance of the restaurant is simple and comforting: There isn’t any stereotypical Asian music playing; the servers don’t wear over-the-top attire, and the decoration, obviously of an Asian theme, is very tasteful.

The first shining quality of Mai Lee is its menu, which presents a good variety of dishes at an affordable price. The menu has two primary parts: Vietnamese and Chinese. That’s right, though Mai Lee is a Vietnamese restaurant, it acknowledges that some people are simply unfamiliar with different varieties of Asian cuisine and are more comfortable with classic Chinese food. The Chinese section is much smaller than the Vietnamese, as would be expected, though it still lists more than 40 dishes.

If you want some real variety, stick to the Vietnamese side of the menu, which boasts more than 170 choices. Admittedly, some are pretty similar to each other, but 170 choices—from seafood, vegetarian and meat entrees to 26 different soups—is still pretty remarkable. Mai Lee also has a good selection of Vietnamese beverages, including (my favorite) iced coffee with condensed milk.

I eventually settled on one of the Vietnamese soups, No. 11 (the servers know all of the dishes by number as well as by name), and sweet rice for dessert.

Here is where the quality and affordability come in—I paid $5.95 for my soup, and the bowl was enormous. Not only was the soup itself enough to feed a hungry rugby player, but it came with an additional plate overflowing with mix-ins: fresh bean sprouts, peppers, lettuce, lemons and herbs.

Before my additions, my soup consisted of clear noodles and sliced pork in a fragrant broth. After I customized it a little with some of the extra ingredients, it was a legitimate bastion of Vietnamese flavors. The soup itself was wonderful: It had a very full flavor and texture. The herbs played a starring role when I was eating the vegetables in the dish, but then they took a complementary role when the pork came into the game. I honestly had trouble finishing the bowl, not because it wasn’t delicious but because I got so much.

After packing the rest up to save for later, I was served my sweet rice: a yellowish log of rice that, unless you are a frequent rice eater, doesn’t taste terribly sweet. After the intense flavor of the soup, however, it was just right, allowing me to appreciate my meal for all its grandiosity and subtlety.

At Mai Lee, I received an incredibly satisfying and delicious meal for just $10. This is the perfect stop for anyone who needs a break from the monotony of burgers and pizza but doesn’t want to break the bank.

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