St. Paul’s Mai Village faces foreclosure

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Dancers perform at Mai Village in February 2012 to help launch a branding campaign and bring attention to Asian-owned businesses in St. Paul during light-rail construction. (MPR file photo / Nikki Tundel)

Mai Village, a once-venerable Vietnamese restaurant on St. Paul’s University Avenue, is facing foreclosure.

Mai Nguyen says the Ramsey County sheriff’s sale has been scheduled for Oct. 24.

Nguyen confirms she and her husband, Ngoan Dang, are about five months behind in mortgage payments. They’re appealing to their customers and the broader St. Paul community to help them raise some $150,000 to help catch up and persuade their bank to work with them.

“If I receive money from the community, I promise I won’t let them down,” said Nguyen. “I have to fight.”

mai nguyen head.jpgNguyen said the business is still climbing out of a hole that began with the economic slowdown about five years ago. The couple cobbled together some money from family and other sources and was able to thwart foreclosure a few years ago, she said. But they’re back in arrears, even after letting go staff to cut expenses.

The couple opened their restaurant more than 20 years ago, when the avenue was dicier and more dangerous.

“No Tay Ho, no Bangkok [Thai Deli] — only me and Kim Long,” she said, speaking of the relatively few Asian businesses on the avenue in the early ’90s. “When we first leased the space, some Vietnamese said we were crazy: Why did we go into this neighborhood and put in so much money?”

And that was just the beginning. The couple turned heads in 2004 when they built their current location at Western and University avenues. Their spacious new eatery was anything but scruffy. A koi pond, bamboo flooring, and ornate wood furnishings from Vietnam led the Pioneer Press food critic to call Mai Village the “splashiest restaurant on University Avenue.”

But it also cost them. Nguyen estimates they still owe $1.5 million on their mortgage. Mai Village has benefited from government help, including a $20,000 forgivable loan to help offset the disruption from light-rail construction.

Nguyen said the Central Corridor project did slow business, as customers began to avoid University Avenue altogether. [Figures from the Metropolitan Council, however, show more businesses have opened on the corridor than have closed -- with 73 opening and 62 closing since heavy construction began in March 2011.]

Judging from mixed customer reviews, Mai Village may have struggled for other reasons.

Still, the Asian Economic Development Association, which is trying to brand the area as a cultural destination known as Little Mekong, warns that more is at stake than just one restaurant.

“To lose Mai Village would be a big blow to the community,” said Va-Megn Thoj, the association’s executive director. “It’s an establishment that has anchored all of these other businesses in the area. It would be tough to recover from the loss if we can’t save Mai Village.”

Thoj’s group is helping set up a Facebook page to rescue the business, where there will be Paypal instructions. Donations are also payable to Save Mai Village, University Bank, 200 University Ave. W., St. Paul, MN 55103.

In the meantime, Nguyen is upfront with her customers about her financial woes. She says her regulars — including one man whom she calls “Mr. Wednesday” — have vowed to bring their checkbooks the next time they dine in.

  • Erin

    I really like having a large, beautiful restaurant on eastern University Avenue. But as Laura Yuen points out, Mai Village suffers from several problems, many of which are not external (eg Light Rail, tough economy, etc.) Mai Village’s food is inconsistent at best and just plain bad at worst. Service is inattentive. And prices are quite high for the quality of food received.

    I live in the neighborhood and would be very sorry to see Mai Village close. And I agree that closing a restaurant of that size would have a larger impact in the community. But I also think a restaurant needs to compete and Mai Village has miles to go in that regard. No amount of community support can make the food better prepared or improve the service.

  • H

    I completely disagree with any statement as to the quality of the food being inferior. I have been going to Mai Village since 2003, having since lived in New York and Philadelphia, and am always looking forward to my next visit. The prices are not that expensive!! Especially compared to other large cities. I had my first Pho at Mai Village, celebrated my daughter’s 4th birthday there, and spent countless hours sitting there sipping Jasmine tea, eating item after item over great conversation with never even the slightest nudge to leave. I would be truly sad to see it go. I think I’ll eat there tonight.

  • Chris

    I would have to agree with Erin all the way. This is a hard working couple and they are true to their words; but a good business stays running with good management and a great staff. Without proper management, a business cannot strive.

    My girlfriend is Asian and always receives horrendous service when going without me. I don’t think the Asian customers would mind if they fail. As for me, I think I’ll stick to Saigon. Awesome Food! Awesome Staff!

  • Natalie

    I have been going to Mai Village for years and I’m in love. The ambiance and food is always fabulous. I will be so sad if Mai Village closes!!

  • Lindsay

    My family and I have regularly eaten at Mai Village for years…and we love it! The decore and food are fabulous. I’m surprised to read reviews of bad food because I’ve never eaten anything there that wasn’t great! It is one of the places we always take our out of town guests. After I brought my husband there for the first time he swore they put “crack” in the food, because as soon as we left, he wanted to go back for more! We will be so sad to see this great restraunt go!

  • Leo

    Bad food? Are you guys serious!? This has to be the best place for asian food in the Saint Paul. what meal on the menu is higher then 10$ The only price I would like to see drop is the price of Veggie Egg rolls. But if they have to charge 4-5$ to stay open so be it. They cleary have the freshest Vegetables I have ever tasted in a fried rice bowl. Other Asian restraunts make me think what is this? Is this really chicken. Not Mai Village. I am a proud supporter. Yes service is a bit slow. But they are down to like 4 staff. Suck it up customers it’s worth the wait.

  • V

    Mail Village is a beautiful restaurant. I’m proud of having this kind of restaurant to show people who would like to enjoy a good food with the nice atmosphere. The price is comparable to other nice restaurant.

    Mai Village has 7 beef course that I love to eat there with my wife and family.

    However, the owners’ attitude towards Asian people, special Vietnamese people is unacceptable. They believe that only American people can pay more money and help them make money. When I come to eat, they make me feel bad eventhough I pay the same price as everyone else. So I ate a few times there, and I don’t come there anymore. I have money and I will spend at the space that the owner is welcoming me and appreciate for my visit.

    The construction does affect the business. But I saw a lot of Vietnamese businesses have the support from Vietnamese and Asian community. They are selling food like crazy. Ex: Ai Hue, Trieu Chau restaurant, Saigon, etc.. The reason is simple. Those restaurants’ owners care about their root, the place where they came from.

    I’m very surprised that they ask for Asian community support while they treat Asian community pretty bad.

    Unfortunely, it’s a karma. It’s a GOD’s will. It might be too late now.