Pick any day of the week any time of the year and lunch tables at Mai Village on St. Paul's University Avenue will be occupied with diners from the state's loftiest circles and nearest neighborhoods.
A Supreme Court justice or three might be at one table while the city's police chief and deputies dine nearby, with a nonprofit leader or power lobbyists across the room. And for two decades owner Mai Nguyen has greeted everyone with a smile and regulars with hugs.
But plentiful parking, reliable food and its location near the State Capitol may not be enough to help the restaurant survive. Nguyen and her husband, Ngoan Dang, need to come up with $150,000 in the next couple of weeks to catch up on payments for $3.8 million in loans they took out in 2003 when they moved from the original location they opened in 1992.
"We have to cry out, 'Please help us to save this place,'" Nguyen said last week in an interview, interrupted by occasional tears as faithful customers stopped to hug her.
A "Save Mai Village" Facebook page has been set up, encouraging supporters to donate to a fund opened Thursday at Western Bank on University Avenue, or eat at the restaurant or rent a vacant office on the building's second level.
Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, teared up as she hugged Nguyen after lunch last week. "They really lifted the standard for redevelopment on the avenue," said Olson, who added that she's trying to figure out how to help her favorite restaurant.
"This is personal," said Kris Hulsebus, a retired environmental lawyer for the state and customer of 21 years who favors the hot-and-spicy chicken and the beef-and-shrimp noodle salad. "I have an attachment to these people and this place."
Down economy, then light rail
The business is in a tough spot for a combination of reasons. Nguyen said business started declining in late 2007 and continued as the economy sank. A couple of years later, light-rail construction began on University. In recent months, the heavy work has been done right outside the restaurant; cross streets occasionally have been closed, making access to the restaurant tough.
"Even without the light rail, the economy is not picking up," she said. Nguyen said her mortgage is $16,000 a month, including property taxes, and she has a $4,000 monthly utility bill. Food costs are going up, but Nguyen has resisted raising prices.
The couple also took on substantial debt for the move to the new location, an ornate but relaxed space that features a waterfall, koi pond, foot bridge and rooms full of intricately carved woodwork imported from Vietnam. A $400,000 loan from the city for the project is in forbearance through 2015. Nguyen also tapped the equity on the family home for $315,000 and faces a $100,000 lien on the house from the bank.
She stops short of saying she regrets taking on the debt.
"Whatever happened yesterday is the past," she said. "I just keep thinking, 'What will happen tomorrow? Will I have another chance?'"
She is hoping to renegotiate with the bank, but even as she spoke another legal notice came alerting her to the Oct. 24 sheriff's sale of the property at 394 University Av. W.
Nguyen, who came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee, spent her early years here raising children and assembling pocket sewing kits for hotel guests. Her husband, an officer in Vietnam, worked in a slaughterhouse. She is 62. He is 69 and uses a wheelchair.
Customers: 'We're with you'
Hulsebus recalled being nervous when Mai Village was "mobbed" on opening night in the new building. But customers waited patiently for tables. "Nobody left," she said. "To me it was symbolic of everybody saying, 'We're with you, we're going to succeed.'"
Like many customers, she's stepped up the frequency of her visits in recent days.
St. Paul resident Jim Toscano is so loyal that for his first 10 years of dining at the restaurant he was known only as "Mr. 63" because he invariably ordered the hot-and-spicy chicken. He's the retired president of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation at Abbott Northwestern.
A St. Paul resident and consultant, he meets clients at Mai Village and comes with his wife, daughter and granddaughter at least once a week. "The food is great," said Mr. 63, who now orders many different menu items. "I walk in here and I always know somebody."
Amid publicity about the problems at the restaurant, the parking lot has been filling up these past few days. "People are responding. I'm hoping they can work something out," he said.
Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson