If there’s any single place that may represent Ventura’s funky, eclectic aesthetic in the culinary arena, it just may be Midtown’s sleepy little Mai’s Cafe.
You know you’ve seen it driving down East Main. You know that purple awning has caught your eye. After all, how many places do you know that boast Vietnamese and Hawaiian food plus dim sum, all under one roof?
The story behind this nondescript, laid-back family-run Asian eatery is that Mai’s Cafe arrived at its current home about six years ago after long runs in Oxnard and a different Ventura location for a combined 20 years of operation. By the time it reached Main Street, the family had taken on a partner with a Hawaiian background. Hence, this restaurant’s combination of delicacies from a major Southeast Asian peninsula country and some tropical little Polynesian island states.
For openers, Mai’s Café offers an array of appetizers, from chim cut quay (crispy cuts of quail with herbs) to beef and chicken skewers in teriyaki sauce to even ech chien bo (frog legs, deep-fried roasted with garlic, butter and onions). If it’s your first time ever visiting Mai’s, however, splurge a tad for the $15 special plate, an excellent introduction to Mai’s varied starters, featuring goi cuon (Vietnamese spring rolls), cha gio (egg rolls), banh xep (potstickers) and very large fried shrimp. (You get two of each.)
Given the bifurcated menu this restaurant boasts, it was imperative that I try dishes off the Vietnamese side and from the Hawaiian section. Of the former, I indulged in the special pho, a generous bowl of savory beef broth replete with slivers of thin steak, brisket, tendon and meatballs (with a traditional side of Vietnamese basil, bean sprouts and lemon slices). The meat is tender and flavorful; the meatballs have a particularly nice finish to each bite. If you love beef, this generous bouillabaisse of beef is totes the way to go.
Of course, depending on your palate and dietary preferences, there are other bowls to consider here, from the chicken broth-based pho ga (chicken noodle soup) and mien ga (clear noodle soup) to pho chay (noodles with tofu, faux ham and vegetable broth), a.k.a. the veggie pho. Also served up is soup with beef, veggie tofu or chicken curry with vermicelli noodles or rice, and there’s a mean bo kho (beef stew), so Mai’s offers plenty of options.
From the Polynesian offerings, trying Mai’s kalua pig (a slow-cooked rump roast, seasoned with Hawaiian salt) certainly seemed damn tempting. I went with the salmon with spicy samba sauce, however, which, like all of the options under Mai’s Hawaiian entrees, comes with dollops of white rice, macaroni salad and kimchi. Thankfully in my case, the sauce-glazed salmon did not arrive exceedingly spicy (as I’m not a big fan of food that is too hot.) Compared to my beef pho, and even the excellent starters platter, this dish registered as the weakest of my orders, falling a bit short of being distinctive. That said, the average quality of the salmon dish was not enough to deter me from wanting to come back and experience some of the other entrees on the menu that really intrigued me, including the island beef rib eye, the teriyaki chicken, the seared tuna and, yes, that alluring kalua pig!
While atmosphere-wise this modest place may not be the fancy restaurant where you’d want to celebrate a very special occasion, Mai’s Cafe is cozy, casual and comfortable and the friendly owners and serving staff are attentive, hands-on and delightful to chat up. Plus parking is super-facile: Street parking is easy and there’s an ample parking lot behind Mai’s that’s accessible from either Main or Santa Cruz Street.
Did I also mention that — seemingly out of nowhere — Mai’s also serves up a kalbi beef Korean barbecue dish, thus making the cafe a truly pan-Asian destination? Which is not a bad place to be in Ventura!