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From Toasted Ravioli to Spring Rolls: The Story Of One Of St. Louis' First Vietnamese Restaurants

Ligaya Figueras

St. Louis currently boasts about 15 Vietnamese restaurants, but that wasn't the case when Qui Tran’s family opened Mai Lee, one of St. Louis' first Vietnamese restaurants, in 1985. On this month’s Sound Bites segment in partnership with Sauce Magazine, we talked about the Vietnamese dining scene with Ligaya Figueras, executive editor of Sauce Magazine, and Qui Tran of Mai Lee.

“We’re the Ellis Island part two,” said Tran. His family left Vietnam in 1978 when his father’s work in intelligence for a non-communist faction put them in danger. His family went to two refugee camps before landing in the U.S. in 1980, and settling in St. Louis’ predominantly Italian neighborhood, The Hill.

When his mother, Lee, and a business partner, Mai, first opened Mai Lee, the menu included only Chinese food. The business did not thrive. Mai left the business and it’s debts to the Tran family who slowly added Vietnamese options and success. Today, the menu boasts 202 options that are listed by a number and their Vietnamese name.

Tran is the executive chef and face of the restaurant he co-owns with his mother, though he prefers to be called the “restaurant dude.” He sees his role as filling whatever needs to be done that day. He tries to approach running the restaurant from a more relaxed, but not informal, perspective. “I like to be in the mix with the people and be on the ground with my staff,” said Tran.

He says that Vietnamese cooking is known for its balanced taste, vibrant flavor and color, and fresh ingredients, especially fresh herbs and sauces. It uses a minimal amount of oil, and is considered by some as one of the world’s healthiest cuisines. 

Vietnamese cuisine is different in each of the country’s three main regions: north, central, or south. Tran is from the south, which has French influences while Chinese culture influences northern Vietnamese cuisine. You can also find the influences of neighboring Laos and Cambodia in the food.

“People so often talk about balance. This balance of flavors; and also this balance of sour, bitter, sweet, salty, cooling and heating, and also fresh and fermented. They just find this wonderful balance,” said Figueras.

With the success of Mai Lee, Tran is looking at opening a new restaurant. “We’re contemplating. We’re working with an idea and we’re going to do a little recipe testing. We’ll keep everyone updated,” said Tran. 

Cityscape is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.