The superstar treatment
As an ethnic Chinese born in Vietnam, Sam Yu grew up speaking Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese. He also studied Japanese out of interest, but didn't realize how much it would help him today as proprietor of Mai Lan.
Those who've never peeked into the Vietnamese restaurant would likely assume it's a small place that caters to neighborhood regulars, because its site, near the inconvenient intersection of Keaaumoku and Kinau streets, is also out of sight of most commuters.
Yet word of the restaurant has spread far in its 30 years of existence, as far as that most distant of Hawaii satellites, Japan.
"We're famous in Japan," says Yu, whose restaurant has become a fixture in that country's magazines and TV shows.
Mai Lan might be the only mom-and-pop in town where guests can be entertained by the sight of Japanese movie stars pulling up in white stretch limos spilling an entourage dressed in Louis Vuitton and Burberry, all in search of what the menu describes as "fine Vietnamese cuisine." I had my doubts at first but left convinced the Japanese do recognize a good thing when they find it, hence the herd effect.
The restaurant is divided into two dining rooms that sometimes serve to separate the stars from mere mortals, and those requiring privacy have access to yet another secret room, dubbed "Takakura" in honor of one of Yu's most famous guests, Takakura Ken, who starred in "Black Rain." The humble room is a shrine to actors, models, photographers, writers and Olympians from Japan who have dined here.
But all this is just window dressing that wouldn't be worth much if the food were not also worth talking about.
Assuming you do want to eat, not gawk, try to arrive early. Six is good; 5 p.m. is even better, because then you're sure to finish before the 7 p.m. crush, when your server all but disappears. There are too few hands and many mouths to feed.
At lunchtime you'll see other locals filling the place, but nights belong to the Japanese because they know the secret I will whisper to you now: Psst! It's reservations. How many other corner Vietnamese restaurants require reservations?
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Bui Hau, left, and restaurant owner Sam Yu offer dishes of Hot and Sour Soup with Jumbo Prawns, left, Char-Broiled Lemon Grass Lamb Chops and Shrimp Rolls, all specialties of the house at Mai Lan Vietnamese restaurant.
TYPICALLY, you'd start a Vietnamese meal with spring rolls ($7.95) or shrimp roll ($2.50 each), so this would be a good time to try something that shows up less frequently on Vietnamese menus.
Similar to the appetizer rolls is a Mai Lan specialty of "bo la lop" ($12), grilled beef rolled in "la lop," or Thai betel leaves, that turn black as nori after pan frying, but with a flavor and texture more similar to grape leaves. I often have cravings for this dish that is actually a double wrap -- the beef rolls are rolled with marinated cucumber, carrot and other veggies into rice-paper rounds. You can do the rolling yourself, but if you were born clumsy or don't want to get your fingers wet, it might be best to have the cooks complete the wrap in the kitchen.
This is one of few places that serves its green papaya salad ($8.95) dry so that you can add as much or as little of the accompanying dressing of fish sauce, garlic and chili peppers as you like. The shredded papaya is topped with thin slices of roast pork on which rests half a shrimp.
Soup noodle dishes range from basic beef phó ($6.25) to sautéed escargots with spicy udon-style noodles ($7.95).
Thick-cut short ribs are marinated in lemongrass, garlic and other ingredients for a distinctly Vietnamese version of kalbi ($11) that might just wrest your heart away from the more familiar Korean version. Even better are lemongrass lamb chops not listed on the menu.
Mai Lan also is one of few restaurants to serve Vietnamese curry based on the yellow curry favored by local moms and fast-food outlets before we discovered Thai red curry. The curry matches Japanese curries in mellowness and is full of chunky onions, pea-size potatoes and a touch of coconut milk. It can be ordered with beef for $8.95; lamb, duck or chicken for $9.95; or shrimp or prawns for $12.95. I find many shrimp preferable to the two prawns. Most of the Japanese opt for curried crab (market), another insider's dish.
For dessert, kick back with another iced coffee ($2.50) or caramel flan ($2.95). Agar-agar with pomegranate tapioca ($2.95) in coconut milk sounds good, but the pomegranate is only enough to color chewy bits of tapioca, and what's left is plain gelatin.
Mai Lan's a keeper and definitely one to add to your short list of restaurants to recommend to anyone.