Christina Nguyen is strikingly humble as she acknowledges her recent semi-finalist status for a James Beard award.
“That wasn’t really a goal,” said the chef. “It was just to make a space that people can enjoy themselves in … like, you know, pull a lot of personal experience, nostalgia into a spot and make it good.”
Considering the success of Nguyen’s two Minneapolis restaurants, Hola Arepa and Hai Hai, her philosophy worked. Nguyen — along with husband and business partner Birk Stefan Grudem — has created a mini restaurant empire in the Twin Cities.
They started small. They first sold widely popular arepas from a refurbished truck. Hola Arepa became a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2014. For a while, another Hola location was in the works.
But, Nguyen, whose parents fled from Saigon, Vietnam in 1975, always had an affinity for Southeast Asian food. It took a “little nudging” to convince Grudem and more than a little for Nguyen to convince herself — after all, she wanted to make her community proud.
The restaurant team had already proven themselves to be bonafide risk takers. And so Hai Hai was born.
It’s hard to believe that Hai Hai’s home in a spacious building on University Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis housed anything else. The airy space is filled with lush green plants, bright turquoise walls, a large bar and plenty of light shining in from huge windows in the dining area.
“The tile is original,” said Nguyen, pointing to the battered white, black and maroon-tiled floor. It’s the only relic left from the 22nd Avenue Station, — affectionately nicknamed Deuce Deuce or Double Deuce — a longtime dive bar strip club hybrid. It was an inspiration for the restaurant’s Vietnamese name, “hai hai,” or “two two.”
Nguyen, a Minnesota native, grew up eating a combination of traditional Vietnamese cuisine cooked by her mother, and American food.
When it came to creating the menu for Hai Hai, she deliberately selected recipes she enjoyed from her travels and avoided more common dishes (“the best hits”) served in many Vietnamese restaurants, like traditional phở or bánh mì.
Notebooks in hand, Nguyen and Grudem backpacked all over the world, picking up on subtle nuances and new flavors.
“There’s so many really delicious dishes that we’ve had during our travels that I’m like, ‘Okay, I don’t want to have to start a different restaurant just to bring these things here.’ All of the flavors of Southeast Asia play really well together and balance each other,” she said. “With Vietnamese food, maybe you get a little more of fresh herbs and it’s a little more mild — definitely fish sauce-y — but then you’ll also mix in some Thai, Lao or Cambodian that have a little more punch or funk.”
Nguyen calls the water fern cakes a “bite of Vietnam.” For her, it is important to keep the core of the dish authentic. Another dish, “mi quang,” is made from turmeric rice noodles, pork-soy broth, pork belly, shrimp, egg, herbs, pea tendrils, banana blossom, peanut and sesame-shrimp chips.
“I’ll put some pea sprouts on it because it’s spring. I don’t try to mess with it too much but it’s also like I want to add my own touch which means balance and texture and a lot of fresh stuff,” she said.
The same can be said for the drinks. At the bar, bartender Bryce Caldwell was busy harvesting Thai basil, sitting in water in a large container. The herb is one of many tropical ingredients included in the cocktail roster. Each cocktail features at least one ingredient from Southeast Asia, said Caldwell, placing a slice of dragonfruit on top of Hai Hai’s “Floating Market” drink.
Though Nguyen had ventured to Vietnam a handful of times, her parents had not been back since they fled. She recently took them and her brother on a tour of five different Vietnamese cities. She described the trip as an “emotional” experience.
It takes a family to keep the Hai Hai in motion. Nguyen’s own mother has taken on the task of watering the restaurant’s many potted and hanging plants. Nguyen manages the front of the house and the kitchen and Grudem mans the back.
The staff are also part of the family, something server Zachary Banton appreciates — second to being able to wear a Hawaiian shirt to work.
“This place is great in winter,” he said. “It’s like a tropical oasis.”
This is the second article in “Digging In,” a series about the stories behind beloved Twin Cities restaurants.