Back to school with the meticulous Mâe Asian Eatery
Rounding out our back-to-school series with MIT in mind is Mâe Asian Eatery, on the neck of Main Street as it pours into Lafayette Square. Its online presence might make it seem unwelcoming, as in bold letters atop the dinner menu is a statement about enforced time limits on tables, and the lunch menu has a bold-face advisory that a non-noshing member at your table will be assessed a $10 occupancy fee. As a result, I went there with a bit of hesitancy. In reality, my experience was nothing but abundantly kind, with attentive service and some of the best Southeast Asian cuisine I’ve had recently.
The space itself is inviting but small at 20 seats, so I get the clock limit, especially since Mâe is also affordable, with no entree over $20 despite its gourmet, individually prepared dishes. Mâe opened late in 2019 in the space that was Beijing Tokyo and during Covid did a little redecorating, adding tables, some spit and shine to the floor and a gorgeous dragon mural behind the bar by local artist Ponnapa Prakkamakul. It also offered up its space to assemble boxes of food as part of Project Restore Us, a multi-eatery effort to help Asian families in need.
The menu is Thai- and Vietnamese-focused, with a few pan-Asian twists and strayings. You’ve got the basics of pad Thai, basil fried rice, pad see-ew, pho ga (chicken noodle soup with vermicelli, which you can’t beat for comfort when you have a cold, but is delicious and hearty anytime), spicy tom yum soup and so on. Then there are the little spins such as Thai ma-po tofu, A Fat Kid at Heart (crispy pork belly morsels, wok-fried with Chinese broccoli, garlic and fresh spicy Thai chilis) and Indonesian fried rice (Jasmine rice wok-fried in sweet chili paste with crispy chicken, shrimp, bell peppers, egg, onions and a fried egg, garnished with cilantro). What truly looks amazing – and I can’t wait to try them – are the fresh spring rolls called por pia. The menu says they take an extra 10 minutes to prepare, meaning each order is handmade at the time of request. My neighbors ordered them and they came out plump, brimming with fresh lettuce, carrots and basil leaves coupled with rice noodles and wrapped in thin rice paper and served with hoisin sauce instead of the usual peanut or fish sauce pairing. You can get them with shrimp or tofu.
Other appealing small shareables include kay moo (fried tofu and coconut fritters with black beans, taro and sweet potato, served with a tamarind sauce), spicy calamari tossed wok-style in chili oil with garlic, salt, pepper, spices and jalapeños (also requiring an additional 10 minutes) and the chive fried dough. Mâe has seasonal specials, which is where my eyes went on my last visit to find fried rice (white or brown) with Chinese sausage and Singapore “Mae” fun of thin vermicelli rice noodles with peppers, carrots, onion, egg, shrimp and roasted barbecue pork sautéed in a smoky dry curry sauce. I had the latter and was curious – maybe even a bit concerned – about how dry curry and barbecue might play together.
Like my apprehension from the menu warnings, it was all for naught; the presentation was impeccable, in a large, decorative flat bowl, with vegetables that were pleasingly al dente among thin – very thin – noodles, slices of lean, flavorful pork and that dry curry, making for a satiating spin on Thai stir-fry. The shrimp that came atop were tender and succulent. I just wanted more of them, and I think I could have eaten two orders of “Mae” fun.
In Thai, Mâe means mother, and there is a clear mothering touch to the dishes by chef Yuri Asawasittikit and the kitchen staff. Mâe also serves beer and wine (including hard-to-find Bia Saigon beer, a light and crisp lager, and super crisp, dry half-bottles of sauvignon blanc) and a lunch offering with a side of that chive fried dough, a few gyoza or a bowl of tom yum soup.
Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.