Southeast Asia meets Northeast Minneapolis at Hai Hai

Chef Christina Nguyen interprets dishes she tasted in Vietnam, Bali, and Thailand and sends her guests on a culinary journey.

Photograph by Stephanie Rau
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Complex, layered flavors and bright, bold decor make Hai Hai a blast of tropical warmth in the sometimes frigid state of Minnesota.
Photograph by Stephanie Rau

Minnesota may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of Vietnamese food, but a rich history of immigration has given the state a wealth of Southeast Asian restaurants, many of which are inspired by the bold, tropical flavors of North, Central, and South Vietnam. For more than a generation now, locals have taken refuge from the cold weather in big, deep bowls of pho or lunch on a quick (and inexpensive) bánh mì sandwich, and Vietnamese food is well on its way to becoming as fully embraced by Minnesotans as schnitzel or lefse.

University Avenue in St. Paul and Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis are both hubs of traditional Vietnamese dining with spots like Quang, Trieu Chau, Pho Ca Dao, iPho, and the French-Vietnamese bakery Trung Nam, offering traditional favorites in no-frills settings. Sprawling Asian markets (Dragon Star, Ha Tien, and United Noodles are among the best) carry mind-numbing varieties of condiments, proteins, spices, and produce. Even run-of-the-mill supermarkets in Minneapolis-St. Paul now tend to carry the basics (such as fish sauce, lemongrass, and rice noodles) required to whip up a weeknight meal. Southeast Asian fare tends to be light, bright, and bold, with delicate sweetness, earthy flavors (like fish sauce and galangal) complemented by sharp acidic notes (such as lime juice and lemongrass) and herbs (Thai basil, mint, cilantro, and more).

This combination of traditional eateries and a couple generations' worth of time has led to something remarkable that brought National Geographic and All-Clad to Minneapolis: the rise of new-school Southeast Asian fare in Minnesota. Ngon Vietnamese Bistro in St. Paul takes Vietnamese food and gives it a distinctly modern, fusion twist; Lu’s Sandwiches has taken the classic bánh mì shop and given it a slick modern look and web presence; and Young Joni brings a richly flavored pinch of transcendently tasty Asian-inspired food into its wide-ranging, wood-fired menu. Even restaurants without a hint of Southeast Asian in their DNA will bring some now-familiar herbal, fiery, and funky flavors into their food. Red Wagon Pizza in South Minneapolis does a shockingly good bánh mì pizza and upscale twists on Southeast Asian favorites have popped up on the menus of white tablecloth spots throughout the state.

Hai Hai, located in Northeast Minneapolis, has rocketed to prominence as a “new-school” Asian-inspired restaurant. Its menu is almost entirely unlike any of its peers—it’s filled with under-the-radar dishes you can’t order anywhere else, and evolves constantly. From the water fern cakes to head-on shrimp to Balinese chicken thighs, Hai Hai takes inspiration from much of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Bali, and Thailand. Its craft cocktail program is also unusual for southeast Asian spots in the area and is roaringly popular.

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Minneapolis-based restaurateurs Christina Nguyen and Birk Grudem established Hai Hai on the backs of two previous ventures: a food truck and a restaurant called Hola Arepa.

Christina Nguyen and her partner Birk Grudem run the restaurant on a simple premise: bring the flavor and excitement that they experienced during their trips to Southeast Asia back to Minnesota so that their guests can relax, feast, and travel vicariously. The restaurant’s nuance is remarkable: the dishes have complex layers of vivid flavor that reflect Nguyen and Grudem’s travels. “I’ve been to Southeast Asia a few times,” says Nguyen. “The first time I went backpacking there when I was younger, I was just blown away by all the different food. I spent three months there so when I got back, I was getting withdrawal for all these different dishes.”

Nguyen’s cravings turned into a windfall for Minnesota diners, who get to taste exciting dishes rich in flavor and context. “One of the things that I couldn’t get out of my mind was Balinese food because I’d never had it before anywhere,” says Nguyen. “Eating it there it was like: ’Oh my God, I just can’t stop thinking about this.’”

That enthusiasm and sense of travel is at the core of Hai Hai. The restaurant exists at a happy crossroads: Minnesotans have become far more fearless about eating and cooking, and the bold flavors and accessible recipes of Vietnamese food have become hugely popular for home chefs. “People are becoming more and more adventurous with eating,” says Nguyen. “They’ll say: ‘Yeah, I’ve tried that, and I liked it, can I push it a step further?’”

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Chef Christina Nguyen cooks a Turmeric and Dill Fish preparation from her menu alongside local, James Beard Award Winning Chef, Gavin Kaysen.

When asked to share a recipe, Nguyen jumped at the chance to teach a Turmeric and Dill Fish preparation from North Vietnam that is a touchstone of her menu and a fusion of her heritage and her home. “When I tried it over in Hanoi, I was blown away,” says Nguyen. “It’s such a cool dish—dill is not a common herb used in Vietnamese cooking, but it’s found in copious amounts in that dish. That’s part of what makes it cool; it has even more dill than a Scandinavian person would probably use.” Dill is particularly resonant for Nguyen—her home state of Minnesota has plenty of Scandinavian influence, from cured salmon (dill) to open-faced sandwiches (typically more dill) to aquavit (yet more dill again).

The mild fish, Nguyen says, is the perfect vehicle for the bright, herbal flavors of the dish, and using an All-Clad d5 10-inch frying pan—which features a patented technology of five alternating layers of responsive aluminum and durable heat-diffusing stainless steel for even heat—helps give the fish its distinctive seared crust. “The dish was traditionally cooked in this iconic spot in Hanoi with a white fish, and they always cook it table side,” she recalls. “That dish has a special place in my heart because the first time I tried it was on Christmas when Birk and I were over there. It was a special time.”

Sharing that memory—and many others—is what Hai Hai is all about. Nguyen views herself as a trusted guide, and takes her job seriously. Her attitude toward her customers is simple. She says: “We’re not going to steer you wrong, just eat this! You’ll like it!”

Turmeric and Dill Fish (Cha Ca Hanoi)

James Norton is the food editor for The Growler Magazine in St. Paul, MN.

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