We Orlandoans have become accustomed to our mighty fine Vietnamese restaurants and their brisk service – so much so that a fast-casual Vietnamese joint seems entirely unnecessary, doesn't it? But there Mai Bistro stands, where the Church of Scientology once did, in all its spotless, mirrored, gleaming and Hubbard-free glory. A good many of the street-food dishes Mai offers are displayed as still lifes on the order counter, perhaps as a ploy to attract neophytes, or to visually mollify the fearful. In actuality, those spiritless bowls and plates of food don't exactly stimulate the salivary glands, but as works of gastronomic art? Well, I suppose that's in the eye of the beholder.
Me, I was too smitten by their bahn mi ($5.45) to really care. Like the one with a combination of cold cuts – pork, ham, sausage and headcheese – smeared with pâté and dressed with the requisite assemblage of mayo, cucumbers, jalapeños, cilantro, pickled daikon and carrots. The firm and flaky baguette is baked on the premises, so the choice really just comes down to your preference for sammie innards. The grilled beef is just as boffo as the luscious grilled pork, and vegetarians can get one with their meatless fill of vegan beef. Toss in an egg roll and a soda and it'll still cost you less than $7.
One one visit, I opted to upgrade to a banh bao ($2.95) and a durian smoothie ($4.95). The steamed bun, a hefty orb creased and pinched at the top, held a mix of pork, sausage and egg. I've had better; I've had worse; but as far as that smoothie is concerned, it was without a doubt one of the foulest beverages I've ever had the displeasure of slurping. I thought I had the balls to withstand the overpowering flavor funk of garlic, Parmesan and athlete's foot but, it turns out, I was dead wrong.
When I regained the trust of my tongue a few days later, I returned and indulged in a meatless bowl of soup ($9.95) with rice noodles, fried tofu and vegan beef. The broth veered toward subtly sweet, and you'll find the same should you choose to build a bowl of sticky rice ($6.95). It's flavored with coconut and, on this occasion, topped with a cascading cataract of shredded chicken, fried onions and scallion oil. A few spoonfuls of peanut chili oil, and my tongue pardoned me for the heinous durian bath it was given a few days prior. A side order of spring rolls ($2.95) got me a trio of shrimp mixed with pork, scallion, rice vermicelli, and veggies rolled in rice paper. They're served with a peanut dipping sauce and they're fresh as can be.
Later this year, a concept of a different kind – Z Asian Vietnamese Fine Dining – will open next door to the fast-casual eatery, and the two, I'm guessing, should make for interesting bedfellows. After this latest meal, I was all but ready for bed myself, but I wasn't leaving without some sort of sugary finale. No desserts are offered, but if you're like me, you'll no doubt end with a spot of milk tea. Go for the passion fruit ($4.95) – it's plenty sweet, tart and refreshing. More importantly, your tongue won't hold it against you.