Mai Kitchen in Virginia Highland wowed the neighborhood with exquisite Vietnamese flavor and fun during their soft opening last week.
Co-Owners Alex Kinjo and Cong Nguyen have teamed up to craft a fine dining experience in an approachable atmosphere. Their menu features traditional Vietnamese cuisine, expertly crafted to hone in on the gastronomy involved in the perfect bite.
Alex, also an original creator of MF Sushi and Kinjo Room, told us that this restaurant has been over fifteen years in the making. He said that because of the original location of MF sushi, “the people in this neighborhood have known me for 21 years, so naturally I would take this space.” He had been dreaming of this business ever since his original restaurant closed in 2012, so he was eager to open the restaurant when the building owner reached out to him about the available space.
Alex said that he had been working for years to get the crunch just right on his imperial rolls, crispy egg rolls with pork, shrimp, taro, carrots, mushrooms, and glass noodles. Along with the appetizer, you can also find the imperial rolls on the pork and shrimp vermicelli noodles. And these rolls won’t disappoint: their crisp shell and soft, savory center have other egg rolls begging to be likened to their caliber.
Another highlight of Mai’s menu is the beef carpaccio, a means by which Vietnamese chefs infused their identity into classic French cuisine. With herbs, onion, lime, and nuoc mam sauce, this carpaccio bears a brightness that matches the restaurant’s welcoming atmosphere. “It’s five tastes in one little bite,” Alex told us. Lime brightens beef throughout Mai’s menu, as the shaken beef features fresh lime and spices on the side as dip for each bite of juicy filet mignon.
The restaurant’s name imparts its friendly vibe and traditional cuisine. Mai Kitchen is named after Vietnam’s national flower, and Mai is also a common women’s name. In Vietnamese folklore, the flower received its name from a woman warrior named Mai who sacrificed herself to save her father from a giant serpent. The flower blooms once a year in late January and early February, signaling the lunar new year. Alex told us that they want the name to also welcome restaurant goers with its English homophone. “My friend’s kitchen, my favorite kitchen, my bánh mì,” he said.
Alex and Cong noted that the restaurant is in an early stage, and there is much more to come. Currently, the restaurant is operating with a BYOB option for alcoholic beverages, but soon they plan to unveil a crafted cocktail menu. They are also re-building the back patio for a cozy yet classy outdoor dining experience.
We had such a great time at dinner that we went back for lunch a couple days later, especially since the bánh mì is only offered at lunch during this early stage of the restaurant’s recent opening. Our top recommendations include the shaken beef, bánh mì, imperial rolls, vermicelli noodles, beef carpaccio, and the Vietnamese iced coffee. We also recommend going on a rainy day for phở with friends.
Mai Kitchen is open from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm for lunch and 5:30 pm to 10:30 pm for dinner.
Judie Levy is the Director of Communications for Virginia Highland District Association and also blogs about food on Instagram as @gastronerdy.