This is so not the first time Hai Hai's been the subject of national recognition.
In July, Eater's roving food critic Bill Addison—whose job, until recently, was literally just to travel the country and eat a bunch and write about it—deemed the northeast Minneapolis spot one of the 18 best new restaurants in America. Back then, he called Christina Nguyen and husband Birk Grudem's Hola Arepa follow-up "Nguyen’s breakthrough restaurant," with its "bombastically colorful" and "stirringly personal" food.
No surprise, then, that as we enter the most magical time of the year—best-of list season—Hai Hai is popping up once again.
First, it appeared on Thrillist's year-end look at new restaurants, where it was named one of the 13 best to open in 2018. "The quickest way to experience the best that Southeast Asia has to offer is to buy a plane ticket to the Twin Cities and head straight to Hai Hai," senior food editor Khushbu Shah's write-up begins. "There, chefs Christina Nguyen and Birk Grudem have transformed a dilapidated strip club into a high-energy experience for both the eyes and the tongue."
Shah goes on to compliment the "stacks of water fern cakes," the bánh bèo, and the delightfully crispy bánh xèo. (He's also endeared himself to everyone at City Pages by agreeing with one of our core beliefs: "Booze-packed milkshakes are terrible, but boozy slushies are one of the greatest joys of adulthood and Hai Hai always has several on offer.")
Just this Wednesday, it was Esquire singing Nguyen and Grudem's praises. And not just singing them—practically screaming them. Hai Hai isn't only named one of 2018's best new restaurants; Nguyen is also the magazine's rising star of the year.
Listen to this:
"After I ate at Hai Hai, I search-engined Nguyen; I knew zilch about her, at that point, and I figured she must have a résumé that name-checked some of the top restaurants around the world. I was wrong. She got her start running an arepa truck. The deep understanding of flavor that she displays at Hai Hai is the result of life experience and raw talent, not some tony pedigree. In an age when far too many young chefs are phoning it in with beet salads and predictable globs of burrata, Nguyen cooks with a fresh vantage point on what it means to feed the people.
That is some serious—and seriously well-deserved—praise. (Of course, your humble local alt-weekly was professing its love for Hai Hai alllll the way back in May before giving it a shout-out as the year's "best transformation" in our own best-of issue.)
Elsewhere in "Minneapolis kicking ass," Esquire calls Martina and Colita's Marco Zappia beverage director of the year (this mere days after he was named to Forbes' 30 Under 30), and Grand Cafe gets a resurrection of the year nod.