In the May issue of The Atlantic, Tyler Cowen composed his “Six Rules for Dining Out,” the sixth of which was “prefer Vietnamese to Thai.” Cowen cites Thai food’s trendiness and willingness to appeal to the “lowest-common-denominator” of restaurant-goers as the causes for its cloying sweetness and abandonment of tart and spicy flavors. On the other hand, Vietnamese restaurants have refused to throw their hot pot into the American melting pot.
Enter the Malai Kitchen paradox. Here Vietnamese and Thai dishes mingle flirtatiously without ever becoming what someone might call a fusion, much like the interactions between me and past few women in my life. Pad Thai coexists with Vietnamese meatballs, but it’s the bánh mì that transcends culture clashes.
Bánh mì is a Vietnamese-French sandwich that has gained street cred among po’ boys, burghers and bourgeoisie alike. Bánh mì, like many sandwiches, consists meat, vegetables and sauces all nestled in bread (in this case, a baguette). The French brought over the baguette when they colonized Vietnam,where they added rice flour to baguette dough, making the bread airy and the crust thin.
Yasmin Wages, along with her husband, Braden, are proprietors of Malai Kitchen. “I think it starts with the bread,” Yasmin explained. “It’s a rice flour baguette that we get from [Quốc Báo Bakery] here in town. They bake it fresh every day and we go pick it up from them every day. It’s amazing—the bread alone. It’s really light, it’s got a really nice, crisp outside and then inside it’s so soft.”
The rest of the sandwich rides on the back of the baguette, but it’s no simple three-ingredient sandwich.
“It’s an herb-centric salad so it’s got Thai basil, cilantro, pickled carrots and daikon [a mild radish], cucumber, house-made aioli and then we put protein on it—whichever protein you want—and a little bit of Sriracha. When you taste it, it’s not bogged down with a ton of tomatoes and bell peppers. It doesn’t have a ton of ‘stuff’ to it, but it’s just going to be really nice, really light and you can taste all the different flavor components to it.”
Protein options include Vietnamese ham, minced chicken, pulled pork, seared shrimp, meatballs and fried tofu. The Vietnamese ham in my sandwich was a mixture of pork, fresh herbs, and shallots that were rolled and then wrapped in a banana leaf before being steamed. However, unlike the “protein-centric” American sandwich, bánh mì seeks equilibrium.
“The bánh mì is about the meat but it’s less about that and more about the herbs and the brightness that comes out of your pickled carrots and cucumbers, the herbs that you use. You don’t want to take a bite and have all ham or all turkey or all meat. You want to take a bite that’s going to be nice and composed and will come out evenly and it’s going to add a lot of freshness. That’s the one thing that I would say is the biggest difference between Vietnamese sandwiches and our sandwiches: balance.”
While the Wages have managed restaurants in the past, this is their first venture on their own and they’ve faced some challenges since they opened in late January of 2011.
“A year and a half ago versus now our food was not the same as it is. We’ve learned more about it, we’ve learned how the kitchen works and then we also have to listen to what the customers say. We took a lot of heat from people and learned from it a lot, so we adjusted the menu.”
“The balance of all of the flavors has gotten a lot better than they were originally. The cuisine’s all about balancing out flavors. When you miss that mark it’s going to come out too sweet or too salty or too spicy and all of the components aren’t going to come together as they should.”
Furthermore, they’ve placed a priority on using fresh ingredients to bring the best out of their food. Malai’s dedication to this goes from sourcing fresh produce to making their own curry paste.
“In our kitchen we always use fresh mint, fresh kaffir lime leaves, we have sawtooth coriander, we use real Thai basil; we use galangal, which is really hard to find. It’s kind of like a hybrid between ginger and horseradish, if you will, but instead of ginger that’s one of the main ingredients that we use. So all these things because we find it all fresh—it’s not frozen, it doesn’t come in a paste or a dried leaf, it’s all fresh produce—it helps flavors in our food stand out more. We’re really, really proud that we’ve been able to find all of this.”
From herbs to alcohol, Malai has sourced the best to get you buzzed. To wash my meal down I tried The Vang, part of the drink menu created by renowned mixologist Jason Kosmas. The cocktail contained spiced Thai rum, ginger beer, lime and green papaya. Malai carries liquor from The 86 Company, Kosmas’ recently created brand of spirits, and uses them in their wells drinks.
For a saccharine send-off, Malai’s mango sticky rice smash is a revamping of the delightfully simple Thai dessert. The beauty of mango sticky rice is its simplicity and understated sweetness, so I was afraid to try Malai’s version. The dessert is served like a tartare with ripe mango capping off a pillar of rice and rice crispy treat. Strawberry, kiwi and mango purée play around the edges of the giant bowl it’s served in. A large pillar-smashing spoon and a smaller spoon come with the dish; don’t forget to give your date the courtesy of choosing which spoon they want to be.
Thai? Vietnamese? French? American? Who cares? Purists can cry sacrilege all they want, but it’s the marrying of unlikely flavors that has resulted in worldwide favorites such as bánh mì. While it certainly doesn’t appeal to what Cowen called the “lowest-common-denominator,” Malai isn’t your mama’s Thai-Viet restaurant either. Fresh food infused with fresh ideas is always welcome in my town.