With a very literal adaptation of 'hole in the wall', Miss Mai draws you in with its simple design and excellent use of colour - bright orange against white and grey. The shopfront stands out amongst its competitors, yet fits in well with the Melbourne-style hidden alleyway chic of James Place.
Serving up excellent lunchtime fare are owners Warren Jones and his wife Kim Nguyen. The story goes that Kim grew up in early war torn Vietnam, cooking traditional recipes with her mother. Fast-forward to 2012, Kim’s daughter, Mai, and Warren finally convinced Kim to share her home cooked meals with the people of Adelaide.
Fresh and full of flavour, the food lives up to the expectations brought about by the excellent shop fit out and design. It isn’t hard to decide on a meal and drink combo that sits under $10. The popularity of the place ensures that along with speedy service, turnover is quick: you are more than likely to get fillings that have been very recently cooked or prepared.
A number of bánh mì's are on offer, with a few variations on chicken, roast pork and tofu all for $6, and a duck option at $7.50. Their lemongrass chicken roll excels in its pairings of opposites: steaming hot chicken pieces sit alongside the chilled, crisp shreds of carrot; the tang of lemongrass contrasts sublimely against an unmistakeable sweetness (perhaps palm sugar?); the crunchy, flaky exterior of the freshly baked roll gives way to soft white bread and delicate cubes of chicken.
If you feel like a low-carb lunch, they also have gỏi cuốn – Vietnamese Cold Rolls – filled with the same options as the bánh mì's, but with the addition of soft shell crab and pork & prawn ($4.50-6.50).
Lastly for something more substantial they serve bún chả - Vietnamese Noodle Bowls – with the same filling options as the bánh mì's, but this time with the added option of spring rolls ($8-9).
Excellent as the food was, my favourite item was their Sweet Mint Tea. I got the feeling that the drink options changed daily, as the menu didn’t list the drinks. However, if you pop in and see their Mint Tea occupying the space next to the cash register, I highly recommend you grab a cup. Don’t be distracted by the tea and coffee specialty shops that occupy the other side of the alley – I tried both and the best tea is to be found at Miss Mai.
Served by the owner, Warren, I found he was a lovely down to earth fellow who, after finding out I was from Melbourne, proceeded to tell me that you could get cheaper bánh mì's in Chinatown. I reassured him however that they would not be of his quality – plus, they did not have to pay CBD real estate. Regardless, I found his bánh mì's to be exceptionally cheap for the size, freshness and quality. The bánh mì haunts I frequent deep in Chinatown definitely lack the charm and cool vibe exuded by Miss Mai – if they charge $1 more for their rolls it is well warranted!
So, for those of you not in Adelaide, or if you'd like to give it a go at home, I have a Lemongrass Chicken recipe that you can try. You could use this to make your own bánh mì, or simply serve over steamed rice.
This recipe is based on one from Janet De Neefe's stunning cookbook Bali: The Food of my Island Home. This book is one of the standouts on my shelves, large format and beautifully styled, it is an imposing presence!
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
600g chicken breast/thighs
3 lemongrass stalks, bruised and knotted together
3 kaffir lime leaves
1 teaspoon tamarind paste
2 teaspoons grated palm sugar
Coriander, to garnish
5 macadamia nuts or 2 brazil nuts
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
5 red asian shallots, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves
3 long red chillies, seeded and chopped
3 small red chillies,
1 stalk of lemongrass, white part only, roughly chopped
2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped galangal
3 teaspoons chopped ginger
1 teaspoon dried turmeric (or if you have fresh available, use 1 tablepoon chopped fresh)
1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste
For the spice paste: Using a large mortar and pestle (you will need a good quality stone one) grind all the ingredients together into a paste. This will take a while, have patience - you will need to pound and scrape and grind to successfully turn it into a paste. Alternatively, use a blender or processor with a dash of water to blend it into a paste.
Heat the oil in a large wok and stir fry the chicken pieces for a minute until partially cooked. Remove from pan, leaving behind a little oil, and add the spice paste to the wok along with the lime leaves, lemongrass and fry for 1 minute until glossy. Add the chicken back in along with the water and tamarind, palm sugar and a pinch of salt. Simmer for 2 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. Taste for seasoning and then serve over rice, or scoop out chicken pieces to fill a bánh mì.