When the semi-finalists for this year's James Beard Awards semifinalists were announced last month, Minneapolis-St. Paul led the Best Chef: Midwest category with six nods, outpacing everyone from Milwaukee to Madison. This shouldn't come as a surprise; aside from having a strong restaurant scene, the Twin Cities are incredibly diverse, with deep Scandinavian roots and vibrant refugee communities from Vietnam, Somalia, Thailand and Laos.
One person who's witnessed this firsthand is chef Christina Nguyen. Her family fled Saigon in 1975, and have remained in Minneapolis ever since.
"My dad escaped on a boat," says the 34-year-old chef and food-truck-turned-restaurant owner. "My mom had her land and home confiscated by the Communists. They used it as a headquarters near the airport."
It's no surprise, then, that the critically acclaimed co-owner of Hai Hai and Hola Arepa had a hard time explaining her deep-seated desire to visit it when she was 19.
"They basically scared the shit out of me," Nguyen explains. "But going to Vietnam was a beautiful experience. It was like this weird homecoming—a culture I'd only seen in pictures. I've been there three times now, and it's very different. I'm going to take my family back someday."
For now, Nguyen's mother is happy critiquing her Beard-approved menu at Hai Hai, which is heavy on the fresh herbs, crushed chilies, grilled meats and elevated vegetables she's encountered at home and overseas. Since she's busy running two businesses these days, Nguyen talked shop with October at Indeed Brewing—a longtime favorite in Minneapolis' Northeast district—and capped the conversation with another round at Hai Hai, right before her dinner shift.
Were you surprised to get a James Beard nomination? Hai Hai's only been open since last fall, after all.
It was super surprising. It's a nice nod to have, though. We're not fine dining at all. We're just doing our thing—making approachable, delicious food. So it's pretty crazy to get recognized. Maybe it's a mistake? A lot of people deserve a James Beard nomination, but Minneapolis definitely has special things happening. We get overlooked because we're in flyover [country]. I think we get lumped in with the entire Midwest. There's Chicago and then there's the rest of us, but our scene has really grown over the past couple years. We have more of a national platform now. Even with all the positive Super Bowl press, people were still like, 'But it's really cold there.' And that's fine. There's more room for us!
I wanted to ask you about traveling. That's always been a big part of your life right?
It has. My family took us to Europe, and I started going to more adventurous places on my own when I was 19. Southeast Asia was the first time I got a taste of that life. It was the best time ever. Europe felt similar to the U.S., but [Southeast Asia] took me out of my comfort zone. I wouldn't say I'm the biggest extrovert, you know? [I traveled] the backpacker circuit—Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos—although, I also went to Taiwan because my friend's from there. I think I was already done with college at that point, because I'd graduated early.
Did you study anything related to food?
No, I went for entrepreneurial studies at the University of Minnesota. I'm sure it taught me something, but it was more to make my parents happy. I come from a business-oriented family. Tea Garden is something I started with my mom. We brought bubble tea to Minnesota when I was 17. But I wanted to move onto something else, so I did a clothing shop for about five years. It was fun, but it wasn't as fast-paced as what I'm used to. I quickly realized I'm not a shop girl, and was ready for the next thing—starting a food truck with my then-boyfriend (Hola Arepa and Hai Hai co-owner Birk Grudem). Which is a great thing to dive into, isn't it? Want to shake things up in your relationship? Start a food truck and work in a small space together for 12 hours!
I almost want to be like, 'If you don't like fish sauce, I'm not sure you should come'”
And neither of you had worked in the food business before?
No, Birk had been a server and a bartender. And my first job was serving when I was way too young to be doing that. I cooked a lot at home, but not professionally. The truck seemed like a good way of running a food business without losing our asses. [The opening menu was] simple and straightforward. Kind of like when I was traveling and would find a vendor who does one thing super well, every day of their entire life. We got the arepas and fillings right and it grew into a restaurant from there.
We thought they were this really delicious thing no one was doing. Before that, we'd tossed around other ideas, like Vietnamese food, but I felt like there were so many people already making great pho or banh mi. One Ecuadorian place had [arepas] as an appetizer, but that's about it. Arepas aren't too hard. There's only a couple ingredients, but it's not like bread, where you can bake it and use it later. It has to be made fresh from scratch; otherwise, it turns hard quickly. So that's a little tricky, as was waking up at 5 a.m.
You must feel grateful to have started in a food truck, since it has so many limitations.
Right. It taught us how to be super scrappy and deal with equipment breaking down all the time. We went through a couple generators. They'd die in the middle of a very busy service, and my husband would have to jump on the roof and pour gasoline into them. A food truck was a nice way to get started, but I love having a restaurant I know is always there. Drinking cold press coffee all day, every day, felt like it was shaving years off my life.
One of the things that surprised me about Minneapolis is how diverse its food scene is.
There's definitely a lot of diversity, but, at the same time, restaurants can often feel like 'greatest hits'. Like with Vietnamese food, everyone sells pho and banh mi, but other dishes can be harder to find. [With Hai Hai] I almost want to be like, 'If you don't like fish sauce, I'm not sure you should come.' That was a scary thing at first. But I feel like the world is ready for that. People are more adventurous these days. Maybe it's because of millenials? I don't know. We can't thank millenials for anything, can we?
What's one dish you were worried about that people really dig?
Water fern cakes! I spent about two years trying to get them right. It's nothing crazy, but some Asian food has a gelatinous texture that seems foreign to people. And banana blossom salad. When we first opened, nobody was ordering it. They were all like, 'I don't know about bananas in salad.' But it's like, 'There's no bananas in there. It's just banana blossoms. They don't even taste like bananas.' The first time I had that dish in Vietnam, I was like, 'What the fuck is that?' And I grew up Vietnamese. But going there was very different. You only get exposed to so much in the U.S.; you don't really get deep cuts like you do over there.
What would you call the food at Hai Hai? Southeast Asian cuisine, with a focus on Vietnamese flavors?
Yeah. That's the menu right now—ideas I've kept bottled up for years and really wanted to unleash on people, like beef grilled in betel leaf. It's delicious but a lot of people haven't heard of it. Going to different Asian grocery stores leads to a lot of ideas. The hard part for a restaurant is finding a consistent supplier. That's what makes Hai Hai a labor of love. For our first couple months, it felt like I was running to five different stores all week.
What's the story behind the special beer Indeed brews for Hai Hai?
We've had a long relationship with them, going back to the food truck days. As far as doing our Bia Side beer, Indeed is super into collaborations, so we said, 'We're right down the street, wanna work on a thing?' They were into the idea, so we had their pilsner infused with Southeast Asian flavors. Our bar team came up with some possible flavor combos. Asian food needs something refreshing. You don't want a heavy IPA, or anything too strong. My favorite thing in Vietnam is drinking a cold-ass beer on a hot day—something really crisp, like a bottle of Tiger.
What bar do you guys usually go to after work?
Probably Grumpy's across the street. That place is awesome. I'm not sure if you've heard the legend of Heggie's, but all of the dive bars around here serve their frozen pizza. It's the kind of thing you can cook even if you only have a toaster oven. You have to try the breakfast version at Grumpy's! It sounds weird—scrambled eggs on a frozen pizza—but it works, especially at one in the morning.
What's your earliest memory of having a beer?
I'm pretty sure my parents let me try beer at a family gathering once and I thought it was gross. It's kind of like coffee—disgusting the first time, and delicious the more you drink it.
When did beer stop being disgusting?
Probably when I was still underage. I'm kidding. You stumped me there. I used to be more of a beer drinker, but I'm not now. Is that an okay thing to say? I used to be more into IPAs, but they got to be too heavy for me. Now I just like drinking light, shitty beer.
What's a light, shitty beer you enjoy?
With a lime?
Sometimes with a lime, sometimes without. I'm not trying to be too fancy.