Mau’s website says it was conceived by a couple of families, one a San Francisco local with Vietnamese roots, and another who just wanted to open a restaurant with really good Vietnamese food in the Mission. It also defines “Mau” as slang for “to eat” – as in, “Let’s Mau Down!” (Not to be confused with vicious dictator Mao, who did not offer tasty Asian treats.) Mau opened in 2012 and quickly flourished.
It has a modern, clean flair to it, a well-lit, spunky dining room and a reclaimed wood bar overlooking the open kitchen, and, impressively, quite an eclectic little wine list. This last really made me happy, because so often at reasonably priced Vietnamese places you find little more than a house red and a house white (and usually just Chardonnay).
On my first visit, a friend and I sampled a Basque Txakolina rosé and a Portuguese Albariño. Mau’s wine list encompasses French, Italian Spanish, Portuguese, Argentinian, Chilean, Austrian, Californian and Washington reds, whites, bubbles and rosés. Plus, sake! And sake cocktails – lots of them! As well as local beers on tap.
To start, we split the green papaya salad (som tam) with shrimp and calamari…
A fantastic version! Even though it possessed not one iota of heat, the salad was so sweet, fresh and lovely that I forgave it and just squirted some sriracha over it. Especially loved the fried shallots.
We also spit an order of imperial rolls…
Chả giò are crunchy rice paper rolls stuffed with ground pork and veggies, deep fried, and an old favorite of mine in the world of savory rolls. Mau’s, unfortunately, weren’t the best I’ve had.They were crispy and came with the requisite accoutrements – lettuce leaves for wrapping, rice noodles, mint, basil, pickled carrots and daikon – but the rolls themselves lacked flavor. Dipping them in nước chấm helped, but they should be flavorful on their own.There’s pork in there, for god’s sake!
My GF ordered her favorite, desert-island dish, bun:
In this case, bun thit bo nuong. Bun is a beloved Vietnamese dish consisting of a bed of cool rice noodles, topped with grilled beef, pork, chicken, shrimp or tofu, pickled veggies and greens such as basil, mint, cilantro, shiso, etc., and can come with or without chả giò. My friend ordered the Nieman Ranch beef rolls wrapped around sweet roasted carrot sticks. The dish smelled wonderful, and I tried a bit of her beef – lemongrass spiced and tender. My friend was pleased as the dish had plenty of veg in it, too.
I had to try a noodle soup….
I ordered the hue tieu, a cousin to pho, I understand, with tapioca noodles, and xa-xiu pork (also known as char siu), chicken, shrimp, and ground pork, in a garlic chicken broth. the xa-xiu pork wasn’t very char siu-ish to me, but exceptionally tender. The broth was flavorful, but not very garlicky. A nice comforting bowl of warmth. And, as with most Vietnamese noodle soups, I could not finish it and most of it came home with me.
The menu here is pretty extensive, so I was really looking forward to coming back with the BF.
This time, I had a refreshing glass of Picpoul, and we split a banana blossom salad:
With pork belly, shrimp, onion, fried garlic, shallots, and peanuts, this was another delight of a salad. Fresh, sweet, no heat again, but I loved all the disparate components melding here so deliciously. I’d definitely get this again.
Next, we shared a dish that usually makes me swoon…
Mau’s garlic noodles were good, but fell short of being swoon-worthy. They were a little bland, not garlicky enough, not enough umami. The noodles also lacked that springy texture I crave. Don’t get me wrong – they weren’t bad by any means, but I’d not get them here again.
The BF sacrificed himself and ordered something other than the bun thit nuong he so adores…
Bo luc lac, or as it is commonly known, “shaking beef,” is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. Mau serves it more “authentically” than some places around here do – with watercress and a limey/peppery dipping sauce – but sadly, the beef just wasn’t as flavorful or tender as we were expecting. Succulence in this dish is key, and Mau’s fell short.
My main dish, however, was excellent:
Banh xeo, an eggy Vietnamese crepe, which far too often comes with only tiny bits of pork or shrimp and a whole lot of (filler) bean sprouts, here was crammed full of shrimp, pork, sprouts, and squid and cabbage. The crepe was perfectly cooked, with its trademark creaminess inside and a pleasing crispy shell outside. This may be my favorite version of this dish I’ve had.
I’ve read complaints about slow service, and while we didn’t really experience that, the service can be a bit impersonal. The staff is all young, and perhaps because the place is quite busy, they haven’t learned to spend time and connect with their customers.
I’d love to try other things on the menu, but I’d also come back for the wonderful salads, that crepe, and the bun. And again, for me, Mau earns serious style points for having such a varied wine list for a mid-range ethnic restaurant.
In short, while Mau has a very Valencia flair, it isn’t off-puttingly so. Rather, it is young and hip without being precious, stylish yet casual, and also frequented by families, which to me always says “neighborhood.” Mau down!
Mau Viet Kitchen
665 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110