We love Mai Lee. It’s no secret. I try to remember to tell Mai Lee I love her about once a month.
Every dish we’ve tried tastes really, really good. Raw vegetables look and taste pristine and vegetables are cooked perfectly tender-crisp. The pho’s flavorful; Jake prefers #9 with the shaved beef, but I prefer #1, Hu Tieu, a lighter soup filled with crab sticks, shrimp, and barbecued pork. To each his or her own. If you can’t find something you like here, we can’t be friends.
Mai Lee also offers a Chinese menu. You won’t find any mushy, throwaway filler green peppers or carrots in any of the dishes. Throwaway dishes don’t exist in this space. Even the cream cheese wontons are really, really good. Those expecting a boring appetizer sampler will receive this flaming platter. The tiny grill on top can add some extra char to any item you’d like.
There’s also the proximity. Mai Lee’s located near enough to our home that ordering take-out for banh mi or springrolls is all too convenient. When we dine in, our favorite place to sit is around the bar. Owner Qui Tran and his team will take good care of you. They always do.
If you could quantify our favorite dish in St. Louis based upon the sheer number of times we’ve ordered it, Mai Lee’s salt and pepper calamari wins. Try not to balk at the price.
Yup. It’s $20 and it’s the best calamari you’ll ever try. A bold claim, I know. If a restaurant serves salt and pepper calamari, I’ll order it. This still leaves out about 99.5% of the world’s salt and pepper calamari, but I won’t take it back.
Mai Lee’s salt and pepper calamari is nothing like the salt and pepper calamari you usually find everywhere. The only thing it has in common with the others is that it’s fried.
The scored and curly rolls of seafood taste fresh. Crisp, light batter gives way to tender squid. Most restaurants just serve the fried squid, but Mai Lee serves theirs on chopped romaine along with sautéed onions, green peppers, dried chilies, and scallions with fresh tomato slices hugging the sides. Despite the friedness, the dish feels more like a salad.
What’s really remarkable is the tart, citrusy dipping sauce which compliments and contrasts with the fried calamari so much better than any aoli, cocktail sauce, or sweet chili sauce ever could. Once Mai Lee included a little container of the salt and pepper seasoning in my take-out order. I ended up sprinkling it on everything I cooked or prepared until it was gone.
If you visit St. Louis, please enjoy this dish for me. Better yet, tell me if such a take on salt and pepper calamari exists in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Otherwise, we’ll have to settle for yearning for it from two states north.