“It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.” – Henry James
College Avenue in Appleton is one of the most vibrant downtown districts in Wisconsin I’ve seen. Throughout the day, and well into the night, the place is alive with activity; downtown events regularly draw crowds and fill the streets and sidewalks.
Situated just down the street from the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, Mai’s Deli has been a part of this district since 2010, but its food has been a fixture of downtown Appleton for much longer than that.
“We started in the Appleton and Kaukauna farmers markets with egg rolls, then decided to expand into chicken wings,” says Lor Lee, a son of the owners and a regular part of the restaurant’s day-to-day life. The chicken wings are “stuffed with what you’d put in an egg roll – cabbage, [glass] noodles, and vegetables.”
Lee isn’t entirely sure how his mom invented them. “Growing up, we never went out to eat,” he says. “[The idea for the stuffed chicken wings] isn’t hers, but it is her own. We put a healthier twist on it by grilling it, too.”
The chicken wings quickly proved to be a hit at the Appleton farmers market, and soon customers began asking if they had a restaurant. In 2010, Mai’s Deli opened for business and has been going strong since then. Lor attributes this to how the family “takes pride in making the food. We have really high standards for how we do things.” Mai’s Deli also recently expanded their menu, offering Vietnamese pho, pad thai, and spring rolls, among other things.
Even so, the restaurant remains a family affair – Lor and his sisters help out his parents in the day-to-day business of running the restaurant, and Lor himself has found his calling along the way.
“When we first opened, I was in high school. I gained experience working at a supper club, and I started working here,” Lor says. “I was out doing the cash register, but I found love for food. I went to the New York Culinary Institute, and came back here to help my parents.”
Eventually, he hopes to take a hand in helping the restaurant expand its dining space. “We’re hoping to maintain our high standards – we’ll still offer the same type of food, but a little more sophisticated ambiance, to gear it more towards [the rest of] downtown Appleton.”
In the meantime, Lor says, “just let our food speak for itself.”