As the darkest day of the year stealthily approaches, you might already be fantasizing about cashing in your vacation days -- or chucking your job entirely -- to escape to a faraway, sunshiny place where you can sip a tropical cocktail and sample some local dishes al fresco without experiencing frostbite.
You could shell out upward of $1,300 for a flight to Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, two serious foodie destinations with warm winter weather. Or, you could make yourself comfortable on a high-backed rattan bar stool and order a Hanoi to Hollywood cocktail with house-infused turmeric gin ($9) and fresh spring rolls ($7) at Hai Hai, the adventurous new brainchild of Hola Arepa’s Christina Nguyen and Birk Stefan Grudem, which opens today in northeast Minneapolis.
Those spring rolls are bursting with fresh herbs, pork sausage,and jicama, wrapped in a ridiculously satisfying little baton of crunchy egg roll skin. They conjure the sort of hand-held delicacy you might find, say, at the night market in Hoi An, a beach town on Vietnam’s central coast whose bewitching tropical-colonial elegance finds an unlikely home here on University Avenue.
That’s no accident: Nguyen and Birk tell us they threw culinary caution to the wind on several recent jaunts across Southeast Asia, chancing upon family-run back-alley cafes and hanging alongside workers on the way to their early shifts at sprawling outdoor markets that spring up before dawn from Hanoi and Hue to Chiang Mai and Vientiane.
A menu born from that kind of magical sense of discovery -- getting thrillingly lost, wandering hungry through winding city streets, stumbling upon a mind-bending combination of flavors -- can’t be manufactured. There’s a fair chance, for example, you’ve never tasted anything exactly like Hai Hai's Banana Blossom Salad, a winsome dish of delicate shrimp, banana flower, cabbage pomelo, and fried shallot, splashed with citrusy nuoc cham.
That sense of delight, of travelers returning home to share their excitement, spills over into the physical space, too: This is no solemn, minimalist Asian fusion copycat with Buddha statues placed in perplexing locations. A long, sexy bar illuminated by hanging bamboo lamps sets off the peacock-bright jade and teal walls of the dining area. Teak birdcages and lavish greenery bestow a balmy, cozy vibe that may make you want to strip off your cardigan and order a second MSG (Margarita So Good, whose tart kick comes from green mango-infused tequila).
Then again, you could also blame the ghosts of strippers past for that urge to de-sweater; the site, now practically unrecognizable, was the longtime home of the notorious 22nd Street Station, a dive bar/strip club combo known as the Double Deuce.
The Hai Hai team officially kicks off dinner and bar service tonight, November 29. A weekend brunch menu is in the works, and beginning Saturday you’re invited to stop by for weekend lunch.
If that’s not already fairly a compelling reason to sip tropical drinks at noon, maybe Hai Hai’s sugarcane press -- the only one in town? -- will convince you.
2121 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis; 612-223-8640
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