Fresh, Friendly Pho
One evening last December, while I waited outside Ono Hawaiian Foods for dinner, a small family came bustling out of the empty store next door. An older little lady was obviously running the show, waving her arms energetically as she envisioned a sign at the storefront. As it were, her new Vietnamese restaurant would be opening in two weeks. “Come, come!” she told me, her smiling enthusiasm was memorable, so I logged the news away for future food-ing.
On New Year’s Eve, the sign was up, bearing the words: Aunty Mai’s Cuisine. Open 24 hours.
You may have heard of “Aunty Mai” Wilkes, former owner of the popular Saigon Deli on Palama Street. After selling it on Nov. 31, she brought the menu to her new place on Kapahulu Avenue.
Considered one of the world’s healthiest cuisines, Vietnamese food is usually light fare with distinctive French and Chinese influences. Good restaurants try to keep the seasoning fresh in all their dishes, with beef or vegetable broths, ginger root and natural spices. Since Vietnamese food is enormously popular here in Hawai’i, I was eager to find out how this new restaurant would stand up to the likes of Pho Mai’s, Hale Vietnam and Pho Bistro.
At Aunty Mai’s, the interior décor was white and homey. The same lady I had chatted with earlier was busily serving tables, and I found out later she was Aunty Mai herself. There was plenty of seating space, so we sat next to the windows facing the street and a friendly waiter came immediately to serve us.
The seasonal rolls on the menu caught our attention, and I mean “seasonal” as in Vivaldi’s four seasons. According to our waiter, Aunty Mai gave her own spin to the traditional Vietnamese menu by adding autumn ($5.50) and winter rolls ($5.50), both wrapped in rice paper like the summer rolls ($5.50). The winter rolls were stuffed with tofu and avocado, while the autumn rolls had rice noodles, lettuce and beef. As with most Vietnamese cuisine, both plates were visually appealing with a variety of colors. However, the winter rolls and the autumn rolls seemed unbalanced in terms of flavor–the rice noodles overwhelmed the creamy texture of the few slices of avocado and the chewiness of the beef. As for the spring rolls ($7.75), they were nothing special. I couldn’t help but compare them to the thicker rolls at Pho Mai, which come out piping hot with much more filling.
The beef steak sandwich ($7.75) was stellar, filled with meat and pickled vegetables. This is one Vietnamese dish with the most obvious French influence–the large toasted baguette. The airy bread held up to all the juices from the meat, and the size is large enough for two. Oh, and watch out for the $6775 sandwich. The waiter denied with a straight face that it’s a typo.
My third time at Aunty Mai’s was an 11pm dinner of cold rice vermicelli noodles with beef lemongrass ($10.75). Maybe it was the late hour, but like the rolls, this over-priced dish was unbalanced and bland. The slices of beef were dry and the “salad” consisted of shredded lettuce and cilantro. The usual Vietnamese combo of sweet and savory was hardly there, because I soon ran out of beef slices and had to eat the sweet fish sauce with just noodles.
The pho, however, is a must-try at Aunty Mai’s. It’s the broth that usually makes or breaks noodle dishes, and Aunty Mai’s MSG-free broth makes a world of difference. Compared to other Vietnamese restaurants, the seasoning is fresh and healthy without any unnecessary gunk, so you don’t feel overwhelmed or bloated, even after all that liquid. At the end of the meal, Aunty Mai came over to say hello and then told us a story about a bad allergic reaction she had to MSG. “I felt a cold, burning sensation because my body system was weak,” she said, “So I do everything to not cook without MSG.”
The small order of chicken pho ($6.50) had enough of rice noodles to be filling, along with cooked onion slices and thinly-sliced tender chicken. The Vietnamese basil was incredibly fresh, as if picked straight from a garden in the back of the restaurant. (Aunty Mai says they order from a local grower.) The other condiments were your standard pho fare–bean sprouts, lime wedges and cilantro. My vegetarian friend ordered the small vegetarian pho ($7.75), which is cooked in a vegetable broth, instead of the usual meat, and filled with carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. For those with larger appetites, the large bowls ($8.75-$11.75) seem to be twice the size of the small. Any Man vs Food fans? If you eat six large bowls, you win bragging rights, a picture on the wall and a t-shirt. Someone call Adam Richman.
Aunty Mai’s service was also notable. Our waiter was friendly and he answered any questions we had. When he made a mistake with one of our orders, he brought us the correct dish and gave a 10 percent discount for the entire table. Aunty Mai came over frequently, and, some of our party having been before, she remembered their faces and thanked them for returning.
Vietnamese cuisine is a study of contrasts. The dishes are generally prepared with both hot and cold ingredients or sweet and sour flavors. The cold vegetables into hot broth, savory meat dipped into sweet fish sauce. Similarly, I have to say I’ve got contrasting feelings about Aunty Mai’s. Some dishes flopped, while others were superior. I will definitely return, not only to try more choices on the varied menu, but because the hours, great service and standout pho are enough for me to make Aunty Mai’s a regular spot.