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Jan 23, 2018
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SERVING SAINT LOUIS SINCE 1999
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What I Do: Qui Tran of Mai Lee

July 10th 10:07am, 2014

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Qui Tran, 36, has become the face of cult favorite Mai Lee, but he’s quick to credit his mother, Lee Tran, with the restaurant’s success. “The restaurant wasn’t doing so well,” recalled Tran of Mai Lee’s early days as a Chinese restaurant. “So my mother said, ‘Let’s do Vietnamese food.’ She took the first step in ’85 when there was not a Vietnamese restaurant in sight.” While he reveres his mother, the cuisine of his native country and life in America, there are some things that St. Louis’ king of pho can’t embrace – like ramen burgers. Here, Tran tells all.

Why did your parents pick St. Louis when they immigrated to the U.S.?
When we arrived, they didn’t speak any English. My dad said he remembers circling NY. They sent us to STL.

Where did you grow up?
The Hill. There’s my love for Italian food right there.

How old were you when you started working at Mai Lee?
Eight. I was translator, dishwasher. You grow up kind of fast. That’s why I don’t believe in child labor laws. Put ’em all to work! It builds character. I turned out OK, I think.

Is your mom still the primary cook at Mai Lee?
Yeah, she’s the exec. Mom and I finalize things. We do all the master sauces. If she’s not here, I’m doing it. People ask me, “Are you opening another one?” I’m like, “Not a Mai Lee.” It’s too difficult to replicate.

What’s the best-seller at Mai Lee?
I wanna say pho.

What’s one thing you wish people would understand about pho?
It takes a long time to cook – 10 to 12 hours. They need time to caress it.

How many pounds of noodles does the restaurant cook in a week?
For the rice noodles, we go through at least 300 pounds. And that’s a dry noodle when it weighs nothing.

There are more than 200 numbered items on the menu. Do you know what dish corresponds to each number?
Sometimes I’m like, “What is that?” I gotta look it up.

What would happen if you took off the numbers?
There would be a lot more Vietnamese-speaking people in St. Louis.

How do you feel about ramen burgers?
If I want ramen, I want ramen. If I want a burger, I want a good old American burger. Some trends are fine, but that one – I’m not interested.

Who’s the most famous person to walk through the door?
We had (Jerry) Seinfeld in here. We’re not like Pappy’s where you get all the famous people. (Pappy’s owner) Mike Emerson gets Wolverine.

If you were to open another restaurant, what would it be?
I’m working on a concept: a fun, little, casual noodle house.

What’s your timeline?
I’m taking my time – maybe a year and a half from now.

What’s your advice for non-Asians on using chopsticks?
The bottom chopstick never moves. You have to brace it between your thumb and index finger. Sometimes people crisscross. Sometimes people clamp. Sometimes people spread it out. I crisscross. There’s no wrong way as long as the bottom one is the stable one. It’s like the pivot foot when you’re playing basketball.

Do you play basketball?
I’m Asian. We don’t play basketball.

Do you play any sports?
I’m a traditional martial artist. I have multiple black belts. In this high-stress environment, that’s my outlet. People are always like, “Why do you smile so much at work?” I say, “Well, because I get to punch the bag at night.”

-photo by Ashley Gieseking

By Ligaya Figueras

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2 Responses to “What I Do: Qui Tran of Mai Lee”

  1. Anna Crosslin Says:
    July 13th, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Trans were admitted to US as Vitenamese refugees. While they could express a preference they could only be sent where there was a sponsor offer. Hence resettlement in STL by the International Institute instead of in NYC. We are very proud of their accomplishments! Anna Peterson Crosslin @IIstl

  2. Anna Crosslin Says:
    July 13th, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Woops! That’s Vietnamese…

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