Next to Pineland (home of the mouthwatering, greasy and incredibly delicious garlic eggplant), sits Mai Lan. The restaurant looks dinky from the outside, like most Vietnamese restaurants in Hawai’i. But when you enter, you notice something very, very different. 90% of the clientele are not Vietnamese OR Chinese. They’re Japanese.
Based on that alone, one may be tempted to concluded that, oh, this restaurant must not be authentic. But, dear, what a sorry error that would be on your part. The owner, Sam Yu, like many of the Chinese who live in Hawai’i today, is Vietnam born and raised. Fluent in Vietnamese, he’s also equally talented speaking Japanese (having lived in Japan for a fair time). He is very likely the only Vietnamese restaurant owner on the island who is so smoothly able to converse in both languages while cooking up an intriguing storm of the kitchen – a bounty of refined Vietnamese food. And on top of that, how many Vietnamese places do you know of in Hawai’i that requests reservations? Sometimes, we even, gasp, have to order the menu ahead of time. Perhaps this is no big deal to those on the mainland, especially NYC, but on our island, Vietnamese, Reservations, and Ordering Ahead of Time are never strung together in a sentence.
You can come here for the pho. Spring rolls. Summer rolls. Bun. But that too, would be a mistake, for the menu offers so much more. With this, of course, comes a price, and unlike our everyday Vietnamese restaurants where complete meals sum under $10, you’d be hard pressed to walk out of Mai Lan for anywhere near that price.
We arrived as a group of eight on a Wednesday evening, 6:30pm to a half full restaurant that, in less than an hour, would be completely full, and by the time we left at 8:30pm, would have a line spilling out the door. (note: prime dining time in Hawai’i is 6pm ^_^). Mom took care of the menu a few days prior and we were served within minutes of being seated. I won’t go into depth on the food and let the pictures speak for themselves…consider that lazy, or how you wish, but the weather is nice today, so I’m running out for coffee & doughnut custard at Shake Shack! Either way, dinner at this most recent dinner Mai Lan was a fantastic meal as always. First, the classic bò lúc lac tossed with tomatoes and lettuce for a salad bathed in fillet’s savoury, onion-laced juice.
Steamed local fish in chili oil – mom and I found the chili oil so addicting that we asked the owner for extra oil in a separate bowl…and oh man, did he deliver, sending out an extra huge bowl of chili oil.
The oil, of course, was put to great use spooned over the broken rice, make all the more rich with bitty cubes of deep fried pork fat. It was awesome, breaking into fatty cubes, crisp little boxes hidden throughout the dish. The fat sort of crackles then explodes, flavouring every bare surface of the broken rice. This is the kind of rice I want to have with dinner every night!
We also had shrimp and lup cheong fried rice with plenty of garlic – I’m usually a big fan of fried rice done right, but with an enormous platter of fried fat studded broken rice, I simply had to turn away and dive for the other.
We closed the meal with a refreshing che, sou sa hou lac – agar agar cubes and red water chestnut jellies over ice and coconut milk. The nice thing about Vietnamese desserts is that they always leave you feeling very cool and light, despite the coconut milk factor. Jellies, ice, tropical fruits…oh man, this is the kind of sweets we need to get through NYC’s hot summers!
Mai Lan Fine Vietnamese Cuisine
1224 Keeaumoku Street
Honolulu, Hawaii 96814