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.