394 University Ave., St. Paul, 651-290-2585
Review published February 2005
SOMETIMES IT SEEMS half the reason we Americans eat out is that we don’t want to do dishes. We like to relax, have our senses stimulated, and get waited on. Soft music and comfortable chairs can factor into a dining experience as much as the food.
Most of our local Vietnamese favorites (Lotus and Quang, for example) don’t bow to this conceit. Ever been to Pho Quan? Didn’t think so. It’s a hole-in-the-wall soup shop on 18th and Nicollet with great noodles, grubby tables, and no listed phone number—probably our most extreme example of no-frills, unassimilated Asian dining. There are exceptions: Azia, the flashy Vietnam-meets-New York-meets-Minnesota restaurant/lounge, and the recently remodeled Mai Village.
Stepping into Mai Village is an “ooh…ahh” experience. The restaurant features a dramatic central pagoda, hand-carved wood decor, and a museum-worthy collection of Vietnamese artifacts. The menus are covered in embroidered silk, tabletops are inlaid with bamboo, and tea is sipped from delicate little cups. Then there’s the spectacular koi pond, where orange and white fish swim among the lily pads; it’s aerated by a small waterfall and traversed by a wooden bridge. As the rushing water audibly mingles with the white noise of dining, it’s like stepping into a temple—only better, because you can eat there.
Vietnamese food shares similarities with Chinese and Thai: rice, noodles, fresh herbs and vegetables. It relies heavily on marinades and lightly on oil, which gives the cuisine a pleasant lightness. Many items are easily shared, with lots of little dishes of fish sauce or plum sauce, and some assembly required. There are stir-fries, soups, and spring rolls, of course, and the fabled Bo 7 Mon, or seven courses of beef. For $16.95 per person, diners are served a range of dishes that celebrate the flesh of the beast, including a sort of Vietnamese coleslaw with ground beef; a pot of broth in which to cook, fondue-style, thin slices of raw meat (careful—if it’s busy, you may not get adequate instructions); spicy meatballs; and beef rolled in grape leaves.
The whole grilled fish (walleye or snapper) is a great choice for groups. It’s served with thick matchsticks of green mango (less sweet than ripe mango, with the same characteristic piny flavor) in a make-your-own spring roll style: wrap the fish in rice paper with lettuce, pineapple, and mint. The soups are less remarkable—such as the too-salty congee, served as the seventh of the beef courses—but the desserts are quite good. The flan highlights Vietnam’s French connection, and a tangy-sweet homemade yogurt with fresh berries is the kitchen’s own invention.
After your meal, visit the gift shop upstairs, a collection of handmade furniture, art, and decorative items like those found in the restaurant. You’ll need to make an appointment with the hostess, but if owner Ngoan Dang isn’t busy greeting guests, he can give you a personal tour. When you better understand his country’s culture, Mai Village will soon feel like “my village.”