Qui Tran of Mai Lee and Nudo House lights up St. Louis’ ramen scene


Original Article By:  George Mahe, St. Louis Magazine

Tran sat down with SLM to talk about his new restaurant, his family, and the future of the St. Louis culinary scene.

In the mid-80s, Qui Tran’s family opened Mai Lee, the metro’s first Vietnamese restaurant, on a whim (“mainly because there wasn’t one,” shrugs Tran). Thirty years later—and this time after three years of due diligence—Tran is poised to open long-awaited sister restaurant Nudo House, a noodle, ramen, and Mai-Lee-favorites shop in Creve Coeur. This time only the name is whimsical.

How did Mai Lee get started?

My mom had worked at various local Chinese restaurants—which were hot here in the ’80s—and in 1985, she and a partner opened a Chinese place at Delmar and I-170 and called it Mai Lee. Mom’s partner soon left town, and it was difficult for our family, since no one spoke English but me…and I was only 8 years old. I was lucky that Vietnamese is the only Asian language that uses Roman letters, so that made learning English a little easier.

Were you born here?

No, Vietnam. Our family was not just immigrants; we were refugees. We went where the U.S. government sent us and ended up in St. Louis. We had no idea where we were going—they could have sent us to Iowa. We were just trying to get away, from death. I was 3 when we got here.

How did Mai Lee transition into Vietnamese cuisine?

Since there were no Vietnamese restaurants here, my mom saw an opportunity. After the partner left, she added fresh spring rolls, noodle bowls, pho, hu tieu [chicken and cuttlefish stock with clear noodles]…only 10 items. At the time there was no culantro, no purple basil, no fish sauce…

When did Mai Lee become popular?

It was pretty quiet for us until Joe Pollack—who’d never had the cuisine before—talked us up in a review in the late ’80s. After that review, a line went out the door, and it’s been busy ever since. We owe it all to Joe. We expanded three times, from six tables to 20, before moving to the new location.

Is your mom still active in the restaurant?

It’s her vision. She won’t leave the place. We’re both there six days a week. My dad, who’s been a mechanic for 37 years, works there on weekends.

Any other family members in the business?

Two younger sisters: one works for an architectural firm in Vegas and helped design the new place; my youngest sister is a singer and works Thursday through Sunday evenings at the bar.

Why did you decide to move from an established location?

We were there 25 years, but when there’s a new landlord with a new outlook, well, we took that as a sign that it was time to go.

Mai Lee was the first business on Musick Memorial Drive, which had to be a little scary.

Everybody thought I was crazy. Everybody. But when MoDot said that 1,000-plus cars a day would drive by the store, I knew it was worth considering. Don Musick rolled out the red carpet for me, said he’d love to have us be the anchor restaurant. MoDot’s predictions came true—and here we are.

Mai Lee has an unusual parking situation.

People love to talk about parking in this town—between the multi-story lot above us and the Best Buy lot across the street, we have more parking than any restaurant in this town.

Was the new Mai Lee different than you expected or did it unfold according to plan?

We picked up a ton of new business there, but I was still amazed at how many people would stop and confess they’d never heard of us—and we’d been around for 25 years. One guy said he didn’t know whether to stop for lunch or drop off his cleaning.

People think the restaurant business is glamorous.

We’re overworked, we work late, we smell like grease when we get home, and we don’t make much money on top of all that, which is why I’m amazed that some people in it can be so arrogant. It’s a humbling profession. My parents understood; they were always humble.

How did Mai Lee’s menu change, or did it change at all?

The menu was 200-items big already and mom actually added items. But still, a bowl of pho and a spring roll is $15 and you’re out the door.

How important is it for the owner to be present at the restaurant?

To me, it’s very important. The owner creates the soul of a restaurant, what distinguishes the independents from the chain places. A good owner brings a uniqueness, a warmth… The staff picks up and emulates the hospitality vibe, which is what turns an everyday restaurant into a great restaurant. Presence is what gives you a cult following, it’s what gives you longevity.

You now have two restaurants. How does that work?

Nudo is my thing. My partner, Marie-Anne [Velasco], is a great chef. She has a great smile; she’s warm; she’s welcoming. She’s the face of it. Nudo is a philosophy-driven restaurant, and Marie-Ann understands that. People may go there looking for me, but if I’m not there the philosophy still is. That one comes right out of the Danny Meyer handbook. I plan to be at one place or the other, but Marie-Anne speaks five languages—German, Spanish, Tagala, French, and English. So I’m very comfortable with her in charge.

Are there more Mai Lee locations planned?

Nudo was originally the fast-casual version of Mai Lee, but scaled way back and with a ramen element. Marie-Anne has systematized the recipes, so Nudo can be easily replicated.

How long has Nudo House been in the planning stages?

Three years. We were making good ramen, but it was missing some element. There are so many variations that we had to dial into what we liked and how to get there. We could have opened a while ago but the ramen wasn’t there yet. That’s when we sought out chef [Shigetoshi “Jack” ] Nakamura, one of the world’s great ramen masters. We spent days with him refining our vision.

Would it have been better to be the first ramen shop in town?

I’d rather be the best than the first. What would I have been the first of, anyway? I didn’t create ramen.

Why choose Creve Coeur for Nudo, rather than one of the hipster enclaves?

St. Louis has great independent restaurants from the central corridor south into the city, but not so much north and west. Creve Coeur is an unserved market, cheaper than the rest of West County, and a third of Mai Lee’s business comes from that direction anyway. The Dierbergs in our center is their busiest one. There are lines every day for lunch at Pei Wei and Jimmy John’s. Putting Nudo there wasn’t a hard decision, especially since we’re doing something completely different.

How is the concept different than other ramen shops?

Like pho, ramen is regional. Out of the hundreds of styles, the one I prefer is simple and gets right to the point. At Nudo, you won’t see an assortment of toppings—four to five of the classics and we’re done. The broths are rich and unctuous, but not overly so, as so many are. We want it to be the best bowl of ramen in town, and I hope it competes with the best in the country.

Describe the types of ramen and why you chose them.

Tonkotsu ramen with soy-braised pork; spicy Miso-style ramen, made with ground pork, because that’s the way I like it; a veggie ramen, with an deep, meaty flavor from soy-braised King Oyster mushrooms; and a traditional chicken version with a rich broth made from schmaltz, rendered chicken fat. In Japan, it’s called paitan ramen. We could call ours Creve Coeur ramen.

And the noodle component?

Noodle-making is an art, and ramen noodles are more involved than spaghetti or lo mein. We sampled hundreds of noodles, and Sun Noodle makes the best one. Case closed.

What’s on the menu besides ramen?

We took the most popular items from Mai Lee and repeated them at Nudo. We’re told we have the best crab Rangoon in town. Done. We’ll do a fresh spring roll with braised pork meat. The Nudo Salad is a variation of Mai Lee’s green papaya salad. Our kimchi, which is pickled rather than fermented. Pho, of course, and different banh mis, plus a dip sandwich we’re calling the Pho Dip. Soft-serve ice cream: flavors like coconut, lychee, passionfruit, durian. And a Filipino noodle dish, because Marie-Anne is from the Philippines.

You designed the place, and then you changed the layout of the building.

The kitchen flow was good, but the server/customer flow was not due to all the hot soup that has to be delivered safely. So everything had to be redrawn and repermitted, the architectural bill doubled, and it added months to the build-out process.

How does the ordering process work?

Beyond the vestibule is a self-order ramen stand, meant to look like the ones in Japan. We moved the kitchen from the back to the front, and it’s open so you see the entire cooking process: the ramen being cooked, the pho, the steam kettles, the woks—everything. Order from the counter, pick up your soft drink or beer, and we yell your name when the order is ready. Despite all the technology out there, I still prefer the warm, high-touch, interactive aspect. I don’t want Nudo to feel cold or mechanical in any way.

Is the décor Japanese?

It’ll feel like an Asian restaurant…in St. Louis. Brad Fink, a master in Japanese tattooing from Iron Age tattoos, has created original Japanese art, on canvas. And there are Voltron knick-knacks, which became very St. Louis when the Koplar family bought the rights to the Japanese anime.

The menu is more broad-based than just ramen. Isn’t ramen enough?

We’re starting with the 15 items that we’ve been studying and perfecting for the past two years, and we’ll expand from there. We’ll play with St. Louis-based monthly specials, like a Pigpicker ramen with Pappy’s pulled pork. Mike Del [Pietro] wants to do a toasted ravioli ramen, but it may end up being a massaman [Japanese-style pasta]. But this won’t be a schtick created just to get some recognition. The fun ramens will be on the same level as our classics, or we won’t bother. We’re gonna do what we do—and people will come for that—but we’ll also have a good time with it, which might bring them back sooner.

How much is a bowl of Nudo’s ramen?

The right price for a bowl of ramen is $10.95 to $11.95. Maybe we could get more or deserve more, but I’m a volume guy. A full room creates a different vibe for your restaurant. How do you put a price on that? At Mai Lee, we’ve proven that volume feeds the bottom line better than higher prices. Plus, I’d rather have 500 customers a day talking up our place than 200 paying higher prices.

Besides a Mai Lee-quality ramen shop, what other concept is St. Louis lacking?

I think this city has what this city will support right now. We can’t be gimmicky like Chicago or New York—we don’t have the population or the tourists. Eighty-five percent of our restaurant clientele lives here, which limits what we can and should do. As we grow as a city, as the techies move here, that will change.

Is there an item you crave that you can’t find in St. Louis?

Whole fish, like Mariscos el Gato and Fritanga serves. Problem is, it’s expensive to bring in whole fish, especially if you don’t sell them. And then there’s the eyeball thing…

What’s the biggest joy about dining in St. Louis?

Amazing food that’s reasonably priced. The tasting menu that costs $75 at Sidney Street would be $300 in other cities, and the quality is the same.

Is the St. Louis culinary scene expanding at an average pace, have we fallen behind other comparably sized cities, or do we hit above average?

St. Louis had been building culinary momentum for the past several decades. Then Gerard [Craft] wins a [James] Beard Award, two years later [Kevin] Nashan wins one, and Gioia’s wins a classic one. Mike Johnson is literally traveling the world and all over the food networks talking up our barbecue scene. Once a city gets on the board, more people start to notice. That’s what’s happening.

Food halls are starting to appear. Is that due to this momentum?

They’re a national thing that’s long overdue here. Central Table [Food Hall] had a good idea, then completely changed its menu and approach to food. Steve Lawrence’s Foundry will be huge if executed well. But St. Louis city-proper projects are tricky; everybody knows that.

Will you ever open a restaurant in the city?

I love our city, I support the city, and I may get beat up over this, but the city has to show us all something for me to open a place there. Crown Candy has been doing business and paying taxes in Old North for 100 years, and they can’t get their sidewalk fixed. And the Landing will never be driven by locals; it needs tourism. The city must develop and nurture that. It could be so vibrant down there­; look what Cincinnati’s done, and they don’t have a magnet like the Arch. There should be floating restaurants to complement the improvements to the Arch grounds. It’s crazy there’s not even one. Money’s a big issue, sure, but what money is there isn’t getting spent wisely.

Union Station is coming around.

It’s getting better, to be sure. But landlords and developers that plan a multi-restaurant, food hall-type project need to heavily incentivize the participants. Putting say, four of us together cuts the pie into smaller pieces. You could argue that we might have fared better individually. That’s why I’m looking in the county, especially West County. There’s population there, and it’s underserviced.

You just returned from Sonoma, where you were invited to cook pho at what’s arguably the hottest restaurant in the country right now, Single Thread Farm, Restaurant & Inn.

I had planned that trip before the place even opened, so I was lucky and honored. The chef-owner at Single Thread was aware of the St. Louis food scene, and another chef—who used to work at Sidney Street—had been talking us up. We started the pho broth at 7 in the morning and fed 60 staffers at 4 p.m.

How was the pho?

Oh, we definitely made some friends. Some of them said it was the best pho they’d ever had and lined up for another bowl. The next morning, their chef, Kyle [Connaughton], had a bowl for breakfast. I considered that my biggest compliment.

How important is it for St. Louis chefs to collaborate with chefs beyond the metro area?

It’s a necessity. It brings national recognition to the city. It’s one way that a chef can give back. Nashan and [Kevin] Willmann were in New Orleans at the same time doing two different events. You can’t put a price tag on the PR role that serves.

How stressful is it to open a new restaurant?

You think about it all the time. There’s no escape. It’s “what the hell did I just get myself into?” I’m up in the middle of the night—let’s just say I there are no levels left on any Candy Crush game. I’m waiting on updates to play Candy Crush…

Are you referring to the new Mai Lee or to Nudo?

Both. At Mai Lee, we went from 2,000 square feet to 4,000. I was trying to learn from friends like Mike Del, who’s done it well so many times—but also has the guts to close a place that wasn’t working. I didn’t want to be that Mike Del.

Mai Lee recently hosted a collaboration with more than 50 local chefs.

It all started as a Facebook post from STLwinegirl [Angie Ortmann] asking if any chefs wanted to pair up with a chef from a local ethnic restaurant. It blew up and we had to turn some chef friends away because they didn’t respond on the first day. Angie called it Love to Eat, Eat to Love and people don’t realize how cool an event that was. It was like in the music industry; everybody showed up with their guitar and a bunch of great music got played.

I remember when a woman from the International Institute spoke about how they’d helped an immigrant family get started here 30-plus years ago…

We’re so happy that family was us.

Source:  St. Louis Magazine

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