A little over a year ago, fish sauce came to Granville.
The Licking County village that's home to Denison University is certainly idyllic and appreciative of local ingredients, but until Mai Chau on Prospect opened, its restaurant offerings were limited to the cuisines of the Americas. A little over a year ago, fish sauce came to Granville.
The restaurant—named after a scenic district in northwestern Vietnam—and its sister business, Three Tigers Brewing Co., share space and resources just off the main Granville drag, on Prospect Street. The restaurant is divided into three areas: an elevated dining room with hip (read: uncomfortable) seating, a bar and a counter for takeout.
The menu is concise, with Pan-Asian influence on Vietnamese staples. (Owners Scott and Ashley Wilkins spent time teaching in Vietnam.) The highlights of the menu are the bar snacks and small bites that complement the bar's selection of beers from Three Tigers and other Ohio breweries.
The chicken wings ($6.25 for five) are at the top of the list. Available in three different flavors with crispy and caramelized exteriors, they're well-seasoned and well-cooked. Marinated in fish sauce, the Viet-Style wings display sweet, sour and salty essences. And the Thai Curry wings are essentially their namesake dish, sans spoon. Coconut milk and lemongrass are evident in every bite.
Another must-try is the Mai Chau Cracklins ($4), a generous portion of fried sweet-and-spicy pork rinds, served still crackling. They are a perfect companion to the Three Tigers My Two Cents IPA.
The summer roll ($2.50) is refreshing, but ultimately lacking in flavor. The inclusion of thicker pho noodles, instead of the traditional rice vermicelli, is a curious choice, and doesn't add anything to the appetizer.
The steamed buns (three for $9) are solid three-bite sandwiches with fried toppings folded into Chinese-style spongy buns. The fried shrimp is uninteresting (after tasting it, a dining companion assumed it was chicken). The fried pork belly, on the other hand, presents a healthy portion of tender Filipino-style pork belly with thick sauce and cool cucumbers.
Banh mi sandwiches, noodle bowls and rice bowls act as mains, with a variety of proteins available as centerpieces. The banh mi with crisp pork belly is served with a little too much mayonnaise on the baguette, but presents all the traditional salty-sweet flavors that make a banh mi tasty.
The pho ($8.25-$9), though, should be avoided. While the broth and noodles are fine, the sides (jalapeños, sprouts and fresh herbs) are served in advance in a paper takeout container, making it difficult to hand-select ingredients to supplement. Additionally, trapped moisture makes the ingredients limp and flavorless.
For the food alone, it's worth stopping by Mai Chau during a day trip to Granville. But include the well-crafted beers, and the duo makes for a good destination.