Hai Hai, the new Vietnamese restaurant at 22nd and University Ave. N.E., makes Vietnamese cuisine exciting again – which is quite an accomplishment. The place has been jam-packed with millennials ever since it opened a few weeks ago. Owners Christina Nguyen and Birk Stefan Grudem have followed the same formula that has made their Hola Arepa such a popular eatery – fresh flavors, a stylish hip-on-a-budget decor, very affordable prices and a smart cocktail program.
By now, Vietnamese cuisine has been around in the Twin Cities for considerably longer than most of Hai Hai’s millenial clientele has been alive. The first generation of Minnesota Vietnamese restaurants, back in the late 70s and early 80s surprised the local dining scene with a whole repertoire of lively never-tasted-before flavors, ranging from lemon grass and fish sauce to rice paper spring rolls and exotic herbs. Over the years, though, some of the more exotic ingredients and more complicated dishes largely disappeared, as did many of the early restaurants, and most of the survivors have settled into a comfortable but limited formula of pho, noodle salads, banh mi sandwiches and spring rolls.
Christina Nguyen grew up on Vietnamese cooking, and her menu brings back a lot of those traditional dishes, like sugarcane shrimp with lettuce leaf wrappers ($10), and banh xeo – rice flour pancakes stuffed with pork, shrimp and beansprouts (or in the vegan version, shiitake mushrooms – both $13).
That’s not to say that Nguyen is a purist or a traditionalist – she isn’t afraid to add in shrimp, cabbage, pomelo and pickled onions into Hai Hai’s rendition of banana blossom salad ($10), or to create new dishes around non-traditional ingredients such as fried Brussel sprouts with pork belly, puffed rice and a Thai dipping sauce ($8.50), or braised collard greens in Asian aromatics with spicy ground pork, fried shallots and chili oil ($8). And some of the dishes aren’t Vietnamese at all – like her Balinese chicken thigh ($14) and Balinese cauliflower with kale, bean sprouts and coconut cream ($9).
The cocktails ($9) display a lot of the same Asian flavors – from slushies made with passionfruit and Vietnamese cinnamon to a concoction of dragon fruit-infused vodka with jasmine syrup and lemongrass-line leaf bitters. Indeed Brewing, located a few blocks away in northeast Minneapolis, produces a special version of their B-side Pilsner for Hai Hai, infused with lemongrass, ginger and citrus peel.