Valencia Street just keeps falling. Late 2017 brought a wave of moderate-to-high-profile closures in year-old contemporary Indian restaurant Babu Ji and Farina Pizza, the latter of which sunk into the Earth’s mantle amid hundreds of thousands of dollars of unpaid taxes. Only six months earlier, Farina, its companion restaurant on 18th Street, shuttered amid yet more unpaid taxes, plus back wages and outstanding garbage bills. (It’s not just dining, either. Elsewhere on Valencia Street, long-running vintage shop Retro Fit was forced out of its home of 12 years in December.)
But the food world is feeling it the hardest. In late September, five-year-old “Viet Kitchen” MAU suddenly closed its doors, citing a drastic rent hike. It wasn’t so much death as a sort of induced coma, and, citing a very specific time — 2:40 p.m. — a sign soon went up in the front door announcing that it would reopen in early November with an updated menu, once chef Khai Dang returned from a trip to Vietnam for inspiration. Happily, it did, and Mission Local reported that all the employees were invited back, too.
Set against what was a magnificently awful year pretty much everywhere, that’s nice news. And it’s pretty great just in the narrower context of Valencia Street. (MAU’s fate roughly parallels the 2014-15 saga of nearby Sunflower, a Vietnamese restaurant duo whose 16th-and-Valencia location went dark for a full year for reasons no one fully seems to understand.)
Wobbliness and precariousness at all levels of dining is par for the course on Valencia, which of course has been discovered by global cool hunters as a site for barfy brand-equity campaigns (some of which occasionally exploit the hipness quotient of the Clarion Alley Mural Project). It’s interesting that MAU — which isn’t an acronym, but wordplay on the colloquial Vietnamese word for “to eat” as well as “blood,” “quickly” and other meanings — should be the one to come back, since it’s pegged at that middle dining tier that seems to be draining away. MAU is like a canary that inhaled toxic vapors, got revived on one of those adorable tiny oxygen masks for pets, and it’s now singing down in the coal mine once more.
I’m rooting for it. MAU 2.0 has a lot of good points, although it’s cutting two obvious corners. First, the service is poor — but only because there are not enough people working the floor, seemingly ever. This is particularly acute during the lunch shift, when people’s patience for multiple five-minute waits is a lot shorter (and taxed servers drop stuff a lot, as standards of cleanliness diminish).
The other downside is that vegetable components to some of the dishes have an assembly-line feel. I know, I know: It’s January, and even in California, not much is delicious. But preparation, not quality, is the issue. Dry carrot coins, cilantro that’s more stem than leaf, and raw, flavorless cauliflower florets came out with the five-spice chicken ($12) and with the sweet-and-sour ribs ($14), homogenizing both dishes. Why even bother then? Although the chicken itself was excellent, the ribs were very tough — and as my final thumbs-down, the $11 beef pho isn’t nearly as rich as Sunflower’s.
But apart from that, MAU is spunky and inventive, with low-ABV cocktails that don’t just combine soju with something and call it a day. It also pulls off the trick of an interior that makes it look much more expensive than it is.
Even a simple dish like mango salad ($11.50) primes the appetite with its acidity, its heat, and its mint-and-coriander layer — and that’s before you get to the substantial helping shrimp and pork belly. Cha gio, or Imperial rolls ($10), are lighter and come with an entirely different breading than the ones at Tú Lan, which are among my very favorite things in the universe, but variety can be nice. As presented, they’re intended to go in a lettuce cup of sorts, but it becomes awkward to build and eat, so you could probably skip those empty vitamins and focus on the deep-fried pork and wood ear mushrooms.
As a piece of shank poking out of a bowl of opaque broth, the tiem (a beef soup with plenty of aromatics coming at you, $9.50) wasn’t the most visually pleasing thing, but it was thoroughly satisfying — fortifying, even. (Keep that in mind, anyone battling a cold and craving delivery.) The $10 hue rolls, essentially thicker spring rolls with lemongrass pork and a zap of shiso wrapped in steamed rice paper, were artful. Scallions, garlic, and fish sauce come together in that magically broad, subtlety-free way in the claypot shrimp ($15) while the un-missable cha ca la vong ($14) marries a shrimp paste with herbs — among them, dill — and turmeric catfish to create something I’ve never tasted before. It’s served over vermicelli with plenty of julienned vegetables, so it’s not nearly the sensory assault it might sound like. Like a chimichurri with the parsley stripped away, the salt-pepper-lime sauce took the shaken beef ($17, and also the priciest item) from merely good to excellent.
In terms of cocktails, it’s admittedly a bit of a shame to see such a long bar restricted mostly to sakes, but MAU makes the most of the hand it’s been dealt. The Hemingway (sake, mint, lime, blanc de blancs sparkling float, $9) and the Root of All Evil (La Quintinye rouge vermouth, lime, mint, and a ginger beer float, $10) are tailor made for the appetizers, but the Foglifter (sake, chilled Vietnamese coffee, coconut cream, and chocolate bitters, $10) is best toward the end.
Overall, although lunch is a bit more utilitarian than dinner, you could almost consider MAU to be a small-plates restaurant in the most positive sense that term conveys. Go nuts, explore, and share. And if you miss the Xiu Mai, a meatballs-in-spicy-broth preparation that was long one of Dang’s specialties, word has it that it’s coming back soon.
MAU, 665 Valencia St., 415-934-8889 or eatmau.com