About a year ago, I felt like I’d been smacked in the face with a 2×4. I was felled by a full-blown sinus infection, which I complained about pitifully on Facebook.

Within seconds, the always fabulous Dee Ryan* chimed in and told me to haul my miserable self to Mai Lee for pho ga. STAT! She promised me I’d feel so much better.

“Pho ga? What’s that?” I have to admit, my knowledge and familiarity with Vietnamese food was – and still is, truth be told – scant. I’d been to Mai Lee several times and always enjoyed my meals, but I wasn’t versed in the nuances of the 200+ item menu.

The pho ga at Mai Lee, according to Dee, was the granddaddy of all chicken noodle soup; it would cure my every ill. I was skeptical – I’ve tried all manner of commercially available varieties – but I had nothing to lose. The usual remedies (pharmaceutical and otherwise) were not working, and I needed help.

At the very least I would have a good meal.

What happened next was caused my world to shift on its axis.

A whopping bowl of steaming pho and side set-up of cilantro, basil, fresh jalapeño, bean sprouts, and hoisin sauce landed in front of me. Before I knew it, warm, fragrant steam from the broth curled its way up my nose and into my head. The magic started to happen.

Pho, beautiful pho!

Pho, beautiful pho!

All credit for my recovery goes to pho broth magician, Qui Tran. Broth is Qui’s passion, and it comes through slurp after slurp. He learned from his mom, Lee Tran (she’s the brilliant and talented matriarch who launched the restaurant 28 years ago), and has developed a signature style.

When Qui makes pho broth, it is a 12-hour process. Pho always begins as a beef stock, and at Mai Lee the clarity comes from blanched bones. Qui uses rock sugar to caramelize the broth. It is a beautiful and clear; you can see every noodle and shred of chicken all the way down to the bottom of the bowl.

Qui delivers layers of flavor and fragrance – ohh, the fragrance – to his broth when he adds cinnamon, fennel, cloves, star anise, ginger, onion, and allspice. Perfect, restorative, healing harmony is served up in every bowl.

Is there more than broth? Of course! It is after all, chicken noodle soup. The soup includes rice noodles** and generous shreds of steamed chicken. Because the chicken is simply steamed, it picks up the beautiful flavor of the broth while adding a richness and texture that brings the pho to life. It’s hearty. It’s warm. It’s perfect.

The whole pho kit and kaboodle.

The whole pho kit and kaboodle.

And then it gets a little bit better. Remember the set-up I mentioned earlier? This is where you can make the pho your own. You can add as much or as little to the pho as you’d like. I add everything to my soup, except the hoisin sauce. To the hoisin I add a healthy dose of Sriracha, and then I – in a somewhat unladylike way – drag my noodles and chicken through the spicy and sweet mix. It’s downright addictive.


Sriracha + Hoisin = Spicy Sweet Goodness!

My experience with pho ga at Mai Lee was more than I could have expected. More than just good food, pho is food that makes me feel good, and fortified, and like someone in the kitchen loves me. And it’s not just me; talk to any of the pho devotees in St. Louis and you’ll learn it’s how we all feel. Quite honestly, love is the basis of this beautiful soup.

Pho ga is my go-to when I need to feel better, when I feel a little blue, when I’m cold, when I have traffic tickets to pay, when I want to celebrate, and when I’m just plain hungry. I also want it when I have a “case of the Mondays,” which is cruel because they are NOT open on Mondays. Seriously, pho ga from Mai Lee is like getting a big hug from the inside, out.

Now you know. When you’re feeling a cold coming on or the first tingles of a sinus troubles or just want to feel better than you did before you ate, get thee to Mai Lee, order your pho ga, and Eat It, St. Louis!***

Mai Lee
8396 Musick Memorial Drive
St. Louis, MO 63144

Mai Lee on Urbanspoon

*Dee Ryan is one of those people you should know. She is a talented writer, a hard-core Cardinals fan, a top-level network builder, a passionate St. Louisan, and someone I’m so glad to call a friend. If she makes a suggestion to you, go with it. You’ll be glad you did.

**Unlike the chicken soup with which you may be familiar, pho ga features rice noodles. The dish is gluten free, which makes it easy on delicate systems.

***In this case, Slurp It, St. Louis! may be more appropriate.