The Seventh Dimension

Mai Village boasts the best part of Vietnam's food, art, and architecture, and its long meals with family

Mai Village
394 University Ave.
St. Paul
651.290.2585

I know that I am given to excitability, and likewise given to feeling too much about the significance of architecture. I'll even admit that some days, I catch the barest glimpse of our majestic state Capitol from the car window, and just slap my hand to my heart, crying out, "From Socrates to Jefferson to conceal-and-carry! Lo, behold, it is a sacred chain!"

I know too that I am given to falling quite head over heels in love at the merest glimpse, the merest glimpse, I tell you, of a nicely turned appetizer. Yet, with all of this in mind, hot dang if I don't think that Mai Village is not just a great restaurant. No, not just that, but a veritable cultural watershed! For the rich Vietnamese-Minnesotan success story, and for us all!

A homecoming of sorts: St. Paul's Mai Village
Kathy Easthagen
A homecoming of sorts: St. Paul's Mai Village

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Mai Village

394 W. University Ave.
St. Paul, MN 55103

Category: Restaurant > Vietnamese

Region: Como

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No, I am not feverish, not at all.

Except with the fever of joy inspired by a seven-course beef feast for $16.95!

Or with the fever of awe, as inflamed by contemplation of the grandeur of the full house of a handmade wooden pagoda which sits in the center of Mai Village.

Also with the fever of cuteness, stirred by the sight of little girls in pigtails and party dresses clustered on a hand-carved wooden bridge, watching the white and orange koi circle beneath the lily pads.

Mai Village! Mai Village! Mai Village! Somebody catch me, I feel faint.

But I digress. Now, for those of you who can't read my mind, what you need to know is that Mai Village is a brand new $4 million Vietnamese restaurant in a brand new building in Frogtown. Just a few blocks from the Capitol, it's full of everything, everything, everything: A waterfall for the koi pond, a whole giant wooden relief sculpture of village life, the hand-carved wooden pagoda the size of most people's houses; hand-embroidered ceiling panels; hand-carved chairs covered with silken upholstery. Everything! It feels like a period room at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts built for a population of princes. But instead of Plexiglas barriers protecting the art, it's been put there for you to order egg rolls in! And it's huge. It seats 200 people, with plenty of room for large parties.

What huge multinational conglomerate could afford to do this? None! It's a family restaurant, of all things, opened by Ngoan Dang, his wife My-Dun Nguyen, and their nine children, who previously were found at the much, much more modest original Mai Village, which debuted on University Avenue in Frogtown back in 1990.

Oh, you're going to love it. It's one of those rarest of all restaurants: the beautiful date restaurant with $7 entrees, the cultural watershed that serves daiquiris. I mean, Mai Village is, above all, two things. First, it's a highly, competent, often delightful, place for the standard $7 quick meals we've all come to rely on Vietnamese restaurants for, full of sprightly bun salads, those herb-filled bowls of noodles topped with grilled treats; and hearty bowls of pho, those personal noodle soup feasts. More importantly, though, Mai Village is Minnesota's first Vietnamese restaurant to comprehensively achieve all kinds of higher restaurant levels, from decor to service to beverage program to cuisine. And more importantly than that, it's a living monument to the Vietnamese success story in Minnesota.

But don't forget the decor. Mr. Dang spent months and months amassing it. Meeting with Vietnamese artisans, trying to forge a luxurious environment that was uniquely Vietnamese, not the luxe lacquer red and gold that so essentially reads as Chinese. He settled on deep sage and rich mahogany colors, and filled the room with so much Vietnamese art that you feel the essential Vietnam of it, the traditions of weaving and carving, in so many ways. Really, there are not pages enough in this paper to list it all: A bamboo grove, stained glass, carved statuary in stone and wood, inlaid tables, more. It's the kind of place where a father can put a fussy three-year-old on one hip and find a hundred things to discuss. Really, sometimes there are so many kids and parents stacked up on the bridge over the koi pond it looks like the zoo.

Once Dad gets back to the table he'll be quite relieved to find that not only does Mai Village have a full bar, serving everything from margaritas to single malt scotches as well as a full beer selection, it also has a coherent and useful wine list with plenty of Vietnamese-food friendly options, like the flowery and crisp Château St. Jean Fumé Blanc ($8 a glass, $29 a bottle). Whenever I've been there the servers always seem like family, cheery and helpful, as comfortable with the menu and customers as could be.

The food runs the gamut from solid and reliable to off the beaten path and utterly charming. Royal egg rolls ($8.95) are made by rolling minced pork, shrimp, and noodles into the tidiest and most geometrical of nickel-wide cylinders, frying them till they're brown and golden, and serving them with green lettuce leaves, a pile of mixed herbs, and strips of pickled sweet carrot and daikon. You roll the egg rolls into the lettuce, add whatever suits your fancy, and dip the whole shebang into a bowl of light, sweet dressing--pow! You get several kinds of crunch--from glassy egg-roll skin to fresh lettuce and herb to the softer, weightier crunch of the pickled vegetables--several kinds of crisp, and flavor that's rich and sweet from the meats but also herbal, brisk, and just popping with dimension. Nine dollars might seem like a lot for egg rolls, but this dish, like many of the items on the menu, is meant to be shared, and here you'll find six egg rolls to the order, which easily feeds two, or maybe three.

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