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Mai Village introduces Vietnamese culture, cusine in St. Paul

Heather Thorstensen

Date Modified: 02/03/2010 12:40 PM

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Mai Village

Address: 394 West University Ave., St. Paul, Minn.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Best sellers: For appetizers, people like the egg rolls for $4.95. For lunch or dinner, the beef noodle salad is a popular choice. It's made of lettuce, mint, cucumber, rice noodles, grilled beef and a special sauce and sells for $8.95.

Call them at: (651) 290-2585

ST. PAUL — Mai Nguyen left South Vietnam in 1975 with her parents, three sisters, two brothers and four children. She delivered her fifth child on an airplane as she made her way to America.

When she arrived in the United States, she lived for a few weeks with other refugees in Pennsylvania, then her father — who had been a colonel in the Vietnamese army — found a sponsor for her and her children to come to Minnesota. The sponsor, St. Patrick Catholic Church, would find help for her to go to the grocery store or visit doctors.

Her father chose to move his family to Minnesota because of its four seasons, welcoming people and good employers, Mai said. She got a job at Honeywell.

She also met and married her second husband, another Vietnamese native, Ngoan Dang in Minnesota.

Not long after they were married, they opened Mai Village, a Vietnamese restaurant, on St. Paul's University Avenue.

"My husband encouraged me to open the restaurant," she said.

In Vietnam, she had been a house wife. In America, she gave herself time to adjust to being a business owner.

"You must be willing to work long hours," she said. "You always have to have family to help and encourage you."

They are celebrating their 20th anniversary in business this year. Mai considers her restaurant a pioneer on the street, which is populated with other Asian businesses. The restaurant got its start in a rented building. They were there for 13 years, then Mai and Ngoan bought the property next door and built their current restaurant. It's much bigger than their original spot. It seats 300, has a special Bamboo Room for parties and has a wooden dance floor under a wooden canopy for wedding receptions.

There are many other ornate decorations that were built in Vietnam and brought into the restaurant by Ngoan. Mai said he is related to Vietnam's royal family and is used to seeing fancy decorations at court, so he is the one behind the decor. On the way to their table, patrons walk over a wooden bridge above a pond filled with live coy. A waterfall flows into the pond. Above the waterfall is a large, wooden carving of Vietnamese scenes: People playing drums, rowing a boat or wrestling.

Some of the tables have figures of bats hand-carved into the wood, a symbol for happiness. On the ceiling of the wooden canopy are hand-embroidered, satin dragons, which represent royalty.

Mai Village was presented the 2010 Beef Backer Award Jan. 14 by the Minnesota Beef Council. It's an annual award for one restaurant in the state that serves beef in special ways. Mai said beef is the most popular meat on her menu, but in Vietnam life is totally different. Her family would eat beef once or twice a week. Their diet consisted more of seafood.

One tradition, though, is completely about beef: The seven course beef dinner. Mai put it on her menu 20 years ago as a way to set her restaurant apart. It consists of beef salad, beef fondue, beef meat balls, ground and broiled beef with spices, grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves, tenderloin slices and beef rice soup. It costs $18.95 per person.

"It's very famous," she said. "Here, I want to introduce our food to the American people."

—Heather Thorstensen