The story of the beloved but financially troubled restaurant that closes suddenly is a narrative we’re all familiar with. In the case of Mai Village, the long-running Vietnamese restaurant on University Avenue in St. Paul, the plot comes with a surprising, benevolent twist. Thanks to some eleventh hour financial support from the Hmong American Partnership, the Asian Economic Development Association, devoted patrons, and the City of St. Paul, not to mention the forgiveness of debt by its lenders, Mai Village was saved from foreclosure of their building and the shuttering of the restaurant altogether.
Nearly six months removed from that big-hearted effort that kept one of the pillars of the burgeoning Little Mekong district from crumbling, the restaurant, like many other businesses along this stretch of construction-ravaged University Avenue, is still struggling for customers.
We stopped in last week for a quick lunch, and while most of the booths in this sprawling, ornate dining room were empty, we left with the feeling that it had less to do with the quality of the food and more to do (hopefully) with the perception that Mai Village has closed.
If you’re not quite up for the epic Seven Courses of Beef (a dish that’s definitely worthy of title caps), Mai Village serves a very nice vermicelli noodle salad. We always go for the grilled marinated pork version. The thinly sliced pork is marinated in a sweet soy sauce and grilled until a pleasing charred patina is achieved. Despite the thinness of the meat, the grilling doesn’t dry it out. The rest of the salad comes together fairly predictably with vermicelli rice noodles, crisp chopped lettuce, mint, cucumber, carrot, bean sprouts, scallions, and peanuts. Compared to others we’ve had, Mai Village’s take is a little less leafy, with a higher noodle-to-lettuce ratio.
Despite the modesty in the greens department, however, there’s still enough mint and cucumber to give it a nice snappy freshness. If you like heat, ask your server if they have any habañero chili sauce in back, and then cross your fingers he or she says “yes.” While it will induce instant head sweats and make you drink your Tsingtao much quicker than expected, it doesn’t overpower the sweet and savory flavors of the salad. It’s also great for dippin’ egg rolls in. And the egg rolls at Mai Village hold up their end of the bargain, too. They’re of the paper thin, flaky, and super crispy variety. A bit greasy, but super tasty.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens next. If the Central Corridor line turns out to be the panacea many proprietors along University Avenue are hoping for, you better get to Mai Village soon. For now, you certainly won’t have trouble finding a nice place to sit.
Mai Village, 394 University Ave, St. Paul, MN 55103; 651.290.2585