The Seventh Dimension

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

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!

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.

The beef-wrapped onion wedge ($5.25) is another standout, in which thin slices of well-marinated beef are rolled around strips of fresh onion, the whole thing grilled until roasty and served coated with a thick dusting of chopped peanuts, fresh scallions, and leaves of cilantro. It's meaty, nutty, dusky, rich. Wonton soup ($4.25 small, $5.95 large) has homemade pale wontons that look like sails lazily unfurling in the bowl. Pop one in your mouth and it tastes nice and simple in the best way. The meatball soup ($3.95/$5.25) features those concentrated, dense little half-meatballs that are made with roasty, toasty fried onions, and they bob charmingly about in their broth, all but promising to be there for you no matter how stormy the weather.

If the weather is good, however, I can't recommend the seven-course beef dinner, Bo 7 Mon, enough. It costs $16.95 a person, and provides about two hours' entertainment, as you work your way through so many beef courses you'll wonder if you've accidentally joined the Atkins revolution. First is a light and vinegary salad of thin slices of beef with shredded cabbage. Then you get a plate of thinly sliced raw beef; another with lots of lettuce leaves, herbs, and those sweet marinated carrots; another with spring-roll wrappers. An individual catering stove is set in the middle of the table, a pot of broth is boiled, and as it steams you get to make a Vietnamese fondue, filling your own spring rolls with your newly boiled beef. A plate of sweet, rich, grilled meatloaflike meatballs follows; they're made particularly rich, dense, and flavorful by the addition of lots of minced mushrooms and peanuts.

Minced beef rolled into grape leaves and grilled over charcoal is next; the charred salty leaves take on an espresso sort of edge, lending a particularly appealing character to this dish. And then, when you think you can't enjoy any more beef, you do! The tabletop stove returns, this time fitted with a domed grill, on which you set slices of thin, sweet marinated steak--it grills up with an almost fruity edge. Marvelous. (This is also available on its own, as "marinated beef on griddle, bo nuong vi," for $12.95.) And then when you think you are absolutely stuffed with beef, another sort of meatball appears, and then a marvelous congee, a lemony rice soup with just a few crumbles of beef to give you bragging rights for having eaten seven, seven, seven! courses of beef.

This Bo 7 Mon is a kind of Sunday supper in Vietnam, the kind of meal you have not when company's coming over, but when you really want to relax and chat away the hours. And I predict it will soon become a cult favorite among both culinary thrill-seekers and budget-hounds--$16.95 for seven courses? Heavens.

The back page of Mai Village's menu offers the restaurant's most ambitious (and expensive) offerings. My favorite was the steamed walleye, which sounded steep at $21.95, but when a giant platter bearing a whole, foot-long fish was set down I realized that this is another dish that is in fact sized for at least two people, and it's really meant as a dish to share among four or six. The fish comes in a sweetened ginger-soy sauce enhanced with shiitake mushrooms, black mushrooms, crumbles of marinated pork, and fresh scallions, and is tender as rain. You eat it in the Vietnamese way, the firm fish tucked into lettuce leaves with all the fixings. Very nice.

Ban Nguyen, one of the family's sons and the restaurant's executive chef, recently completed a stint at Le Cordon Bleu, and this back page shows many of the influences of cooking school, offering dishes like chicken roulade and salmon in Chardonnay. I skipped those, but my experiences with a strange overcooked lobster in black bean sauce ($26.95) and a far too sweet version of grilled Cornish game hen ($16.95) would lead me to recommend that you stick to the more obviously Vietnamese dishes. The restaurant also offers a number of chow-mein hut classics that I didn't try.  

But you know what? While all of these details of kitchen and architecture matter, the heart of what's really big here is simply the really big hearts--of Mr. Dang, of Mrs. Nguyen, of all the kids, and of the darn enterprise.

I mean, the first few times I went to the restaurant, Mr. Dang, a dapper little slip of a man who has the strained and exultant look of someone who's been the strong man supporting a pyramid of acrobats for half a century, Mr. Dang was circling the rooms, greeting each and every table, recounting hard-won battles with far-off craftsmen, pointing out details of menu, planting design, and chair-making. You'll please note that the chairs are sturdy American oak, adorned with delicate Vietnamese carvings, something like the base we see nowadays of sturdy St. Paul adorned with the grace of Vietnamese cooking and culture. He would explain how his various children had pitched in, refinancing their houses, working full-time for free, recruiting friends to work for free. He would worry about service, about whether customers were having a good enough time, he'd worry in the happy, dazed way I associate mainly with fathers of the bride at big weddings.

To tell you the truth, I couldn't wait to talk to him on the phone for this story. Sadly, by the time I called he and his wife had just left for Vietnam for three weeks to buy furniture for the coming patio, so I spoke to his son, Ban Nguyen, the chef. Nguyen told me that his father's dream was to recreate his experience of Hue, the Vietnamese city that was once the seat of academic and artistic life, for his children. Which is when Ban Nguyen provided me with an insight I never would have gotten otherwise.

I mean, when I asked Ban Nguyen how many grandkids his parents had, he wasn't comfortable counting them without a sister to double-check with. More than a dozen? Definitely. And out of that number, how many had seen Vietnam? None. And none of the kids had, either. At that moment it came clear to me, the importance of Mai Village.

Mai Village is more than a restaurant. It's the living experience of the best part of growing up in Hue 50 years ago. The best part of the food, the art, the architecture, the long meals with family feasting on recipes handed down over generations. It's memory, history, and culture passed down in the most vivid way possible, as an experience. Not just three-dimensional, though it is that, in burnished wood and delicate silks, but four-dimensional, with the scent of roasty onions that waft up from a bowl of meatball soup, and five-dimensional, with the taste of a gently steamed fish tucked into a lettuce wrap. Six-dimensional, allowing you to build your own new memories within it over time, to raise your own kids in the best part of those memories. And seven-dimensional, I say, at least seven-dimensional, as it creates a whole new world never before seen: Vietnam joyfully in Minnesota.

That this wonder is probably more meant for grandkids, and great-grandkids yet unborn, doesn't trouble me at all. That's one of the amazing things about living in this society. People pour their love and heart and work into things, things like paths around the lakes or the Como Park Conservatory or Mai Village, and every one of us gets to share in the gift.

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Mai Village

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


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