Sadly, this family-friendly eatery is now closed.
This story begins the way all good tales have, since the beginning of storytelling: “Once Upon a Time…”
Well, once upon a time I discovered pho. Okay, I didn’t actually discover it outright (I’m not THAT famous), but I got talked into going into a small, hole-in-the-wall place in Salt Lake City, back when I was in graduate school. I couldn’t read the writing on the door, but my friend assured me this would be “the best Vietnamese I’d ever eaten.” Little did she know, I’d never had Vietnamese before. When she asked what I wanted, I said “soup” because it was cold that afternoon.
The rest is history.
They brought me a steaming bowl of phở tái gầu. (From here on, I’ll skip the fancy accents; too hard to type!) No, I couldn’t pronounce it. The aroma was mesmerizing, though; I was hooked, addicted for life, and I hadn’t even had a mouthful yet.
Years later, after settling in the Austin area, I went on a quest to find the best bowl of pho in central Texas. Vietnamese restaurants were opening everywhere, especially the small noodle houses I first fell in love with. I sampled pho tai, pho chin and more, all over the city. Some were great, some less so. Only a couple were worth forgetting, and a few were outstanding.
I lost that list, though, when I started spending a large portion of each year out of the country
waiting for the warrants to expire consulting with manufacturing firms in Asia. The quest wasn’t forgotten, exactly. Resting, let’s say; waiting for an opportune moment to start again.
Yesterday I got the chance to begin the crusade anew, at a wonderful little place called Mai Lien Bistro, over in Wells Branch. You know me, never one to pass up a chance
more than three or four times or procrastinate when it comes to dining out! The place is easy to find, about a half mile west of Interstate 35 on Wells Branch Parkway. Mai Lien is in the former Wokaholic store space, and very much improved. The new eatery opened in the late fall of 2010. I vaguely remembered it was there, but I don’t drive through Wells Branch much any more so I’d forgotten about it.
Then I got this unquenchable hankering for a big bowl of pho. AND I wanted to try a new local place. Urbanspoon reminded me of Mai Lien and I was on it
like a rooster on a Junebug. I headed over just before noon to beat the lunch rush.
The remodeled shop is nicely appointed, nicer than a typical noodle house. Lots of light colors, cream and yellow, to make the space bright and large, with darker woods and black metal as accents. As you enter there’s a buffet area to the left, a half dozen booths down the wall to the right, and tables for about four dozen folks in the rest of the dining space. Along the back wall is a nice, long bar, very well built and decorated. I found their feng shui quite inviting.
The wait staff were quick to greet me. Sarah led me to a booth and handed me the menu, all while smiling brightly enough to overpower the indirect lighting. I noticed some old friends at a nearby table, so I put the ordering process on pause while I strolled over to chat a bit. That nearly cost me my table, as the other waiter took my menu! (it was an honest mistake, and he was doing well by keeping things neat and tidy.) I got back quickly, though, and returned to business.
Mai Lien’s menu is quite extensive and very Viet in style, with a few “Chinese” dishes tossed in for good measure. I say Chinese, because they all have interesting Vietnamese names. However, a diner new to Viet dishes will perhaps recognize the descriptions from their American Chinese food experiences. (Though they may look Chinese, these dishes will be flavored more in the Vietnamese style, I suspect.) I asked for a takeout menu too, and it’s a work of art: An eight-panel glossy sheet, filled front and back with oodles of intriguing choices. Someone really did their homework AND artwork! This is nothing like I’ve ever seen in other pho places. Then again, Mai Lien is so much more than a simple pho house.
To test out the kitchen I ordered the same dish that got me started on Vietnamese food, all those years ago: Pho Tai Gau (beef noodle soup with rare steak and well-done brisket, $5.95 for a small bowl), with Cha Gio (fried eggrolls, 2 per order, $2.75) on the side. The photo shows their efforts (as well as highlighting the artwork on some of the tables). I enjoyed the eye-appeal of this meal, including the matching setting with the house logos on the dishes. Table condiments include fish sauce (nicely labeled for us round-eyes who might think it was soy sauce), hoisin sauce, a smooth red pepper sauce (I assume Sriracha, based on the taste), and salt and pepper. Soy sauce and others are available. I didn’t see any garlic chile sauce or sambal oelek, but I bet if I’d wanted some they’d have it.
How was it? Outstanding! First impression, in the top 2-3 bowls of pho I’ve ever had. This version is on the delicate side, with a dramatically clear broth. The ingredients were all carefully arranged in the bowl, indicating to me a special sense of pride in workmanship. The broth has aromas of cinnamon, star anise and more, as expected. I think I could sense some ginger, maybe cloves and/or cardamom, lemongrass (a bit), and so on. None of it slapped me in the face, and the main aroma was pleasantly beef. The sliced steak and brisket were plentiful and savory. I know some barbeque specialists who would kill to make their brisket this tender. The slices were about four inches long as well, not chopped or small bits. Very nice! The add-ons plate included a big lime wedge, Thai basil and plenty of bean sprouts. The basil was especially pretty and fresh.
The egg rolls were extremely hot when I got them, so I didn’t chomp down right away. I noticed that the small cup of dipping sauce wasn’t simply fish sauce or something that simple. I tasted it carefully, and it’s clearly not “the usual” either! Yes, fish sauce is the base; a good quality one, with no aftertaste. It appears that a sweet chilli sauce, like I learned to enjoy in Singapore, is added. I can’t tell about anything else, but I suspect there’s more. (Maybe next time they’ll tell me the secret?)
Usually I don’t bother with the dipping sauce for my eggrolls; I opt instead for Sriracha or some other peppery stuff. This time was completely different! I thoroughly enjoyed what that sauce did for my appetizer.
The only thing I missed, at least a little bit, was the cilantro. Or Chinese parsley, if you prefer. It’s a flavor I’m deeply attached to, in both Asian and Tex-Mex cooking. I know there’s a big divide among folks concerning fresh coriander; seems you either love it or hate it. I know Mai Lien uses it, it’s featured in several specific dishes. (Next time I’ll ask for some.)
I think Mai Lien may be the perfect place to take someone who’s new to pho. The quality is high and the flavors aren’t so bold as to risk turning off the neophyte to a great cuisine. Once they’re hooked they can try other places. Or keep coming back; I’m sure the owner wouldn’t mind!
To summarize, I had a fine lunch experience at Mai Lien Bistro, and I’ll certainly be back. With the whole Clan in tow, if I can manage that. Dinner, certainly. They’ve got so much variety that it’ll take a while to try it all. The place is squeaky-clean and soothing, with friendly staff. The food I had was outstanding in flavor, presentation and quantity, and the price was very good. The only thing I’d change is the cilantro, and that’s not a big knock.
For now the Search for the Finest Bowl of Pho in Texas and Chile Underground World Tour will have to continue elsewhere, and later. In the meantime, Mai Lien’s pho is at the top of my short list…
Mai Lien Bistro, 1779 Wells Branch Parkway, Suite 102 (in Wells Branch Plaza), Austin, TX 78728 Phone 512.215.0250. Open seven days a week, 11 AM – 9 PM, with closing extended to 10 PM on Friday and Saturday. Buffet lunch every day, 11 AM – 2 PM. Takeout available. Happy Hour Monday-Friday, 4 PM – 7 PM, with beer, drink and appetizer specials.
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