So she and her relatives including an uncle, brother and sister decided to fund the work themselves.
The only assistance they're getting is $80,000 from the West Valley City Redevelopment Agency, which gives incentive money to entice businesses to move to the city or renovate an existing facility. Often, the money goes to big or medium-size companies, but the board thought small this time.
City Council members, who sit as the agency's board of directors, voted in February to give the money to Nguyen. They said they were happy to help her spruce up the property at 2000 W. 3500 South, which is on one of the busiest streets in West Valley City.
"This is a local entrepreneur who's making a significant improvement at a gateway to the city," Mayor Mike Winder said.
He also gave a thumbs-up to the food.
"It's terrific," Winder said. "One of the things that makes West Valley City such a great place is you have authentic ethnic food."
Pho Green Papaya, a noodle house that serves Vietnamese and Thai food, opened in fall 2007. The restaurant shares a nearly 2-acre plot with a small office building and a wedding reception center.
The run-down office building has been torn down and is being rebuilt. The reception center will be remodeled beginning in September, after its busy season is over. Pho Green Papaya will remain open during construction, including the expansion of its kitchen.
When the renovation is complete, the three buildings will have a common architecture with Brazilian hardwood. A sidewalk, bike path and landscaping along the street also are being added.
Nguyen, a licensed general contractor, is supervising the renovations and running Pho Green Papaya with the help of her brother and sister. She also helped build Sapa, a sushi bar and Asian-fusion grill at 722 S. State St. in Salt Lake City that she and her husband own.
The pair bought three small teak houses in Vietnam, disassembled them and had them delivered to Utah. Nguyen spent 20 months reassembling the pieces without nails in a tongue-and-groove style at Sapa, which opened a year and a half ago.
Nguyen is a third-generation restaurant entrepreneur: Her grandmother had a restaurant in Vietnam and Nguyen and her mother had eateries in California.
The family left Vietnam in 1982 when Nguyen was a child and first lived in Oakland, Calif., before settling in Utah after hearing that it was a good place to raise children.
"We love it here," Nguyen said. "We're like Utah natives now."
Mai Nguyen and her family are renovating their West Valley City property, which includes the noodle house Pho Green Papaya, a wedding reception center and office building. The restaurant, 2000 W. 3500 South, will remain open during construction.
Nguyen also is owner of Sapa, a sushi bar and Asian-fusion grill at 722 S. State St. in Salt Lake City.
For more information on the restaurants, go to http://www.greenpapayautah.com and http://www.sapabarandgrill.com.