Review: Hai Hai is a blissful, breezy paradise in northeast Minneapolis

Lucy Hawthorne

Lucy Hawthorne

You know that Dolly Parton line about how “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap”? The secret of northeast Minneapolis getaway Hai Hai is like that: It takes a lot of work to look this effortless.

With their second restaurant, Hola Arepa and Hai Hai owners Christina Nguyen and Birk Grudem have shown a shrewd, near-scientific grasp of how to make a restaurant go. Here we are, blissfully munching on crispy fried tofu with a creamy lime leaf sauce and swirling the lychee in the bottom of our sangria as if this tropical oasis had just sprouted from the concrete. Of course it didn’t. Meticulous planning and streamlined logistics turned this former strip club, 22nd Avenue Station or “the Double Deuce,” into a lush indoor paradise and bustling patio, where the drinks are swift and the food is too.

The efficiency of Hai Hai has its roots in Nguyen and Grudem’s first venture, a bright-blue food truck emblazoned with “Hola Arepa” on the side. From its window, the namesake Venezuelan corn cakes topped with braised meats were served to an ever-expanding audience. That by-the-minute service carried over to a brick-and-mortar store in south Minneapolis, operating under the same name. On more than one occasion at Hola Arepa, my table’s food arrived so quickly I thought it was a mistake.

It was never a mistake. The brisk cadence of the food truck trained the Hola Arepa team well. They have so mastered the art of mixing and matching the same ingredients in different dishes, it’s as seamless as a fast-food operation with all the care of slow food. And Hai Hai has fine-tuned the machine.

With a loosely Vietnamese bent, the menu here uses a number of the same or similar ingredients, dish after dish. Nuoc cham, peanuts, ground pork, cilantro, Thai basil, those same pink pickled onions that Hola Arepa diners love, sticky rice, shrimp, lime, tofu—the list goes on, yet every item feels original. The Hanoi sticky rice takes that ubiquitous chewy starch base and the familiar flavors of meaty ground pork, tangy nuoc cham, pickled vegetables, and Chinese sausage, and adds to it something called “pork floss.” Dubbed “pork fiberglass” by a fellow diner, the dehydrated meat with the consistency of cotton candy makes for a powerful pop of flavor and is a curious pleasure to eat.

Then again, it’s quite possible a pile of beige threads called “pork floss” turns you off. In this case, I will recall for you what a friend once told me: All the best foods she ate in China were a variation on “savory mush” (her phrasing). In other words, don’t knock it ’til you try it. Happily, that mush, more commonly known as congee, is a rice porridge available on the brunch menu at Hai Hai, and indeed, it will open your eyes. The slightly gelatinous texture serves as a fine conduit for the fatty, caramelized pork (or mushroom if you prefer), coating your mouth in a way highly paid food scientists could only dream to mimic. The congee comes with an ingenious “Chinese cruller,” a savory funnel cake baton placed across the top of the bowl, for dipping.

Lucy Hawthorne

Lucy Hawthorne

Elsewhere in the fried-to-perfection camp, the Thai fried chicken and papaya salad (also at brunch) should win awards for the levity of its batter, the tenderness of its meat, and the textural delight of its accompanying sticky rice and coconut milk pancake. As a tidy foil, the papaya salad adds vegetal crunch, spice, and fish sauce funk. On a smaller scale, the happy hour fried tofu combines the kitchen’s deep-fryer skill with the addictive, creamy lime leaf tofu sauce, which crops up in other dishes to ensure you’re fully hooked.

Perhaps you guessed from all the tofu talk that vegans and vegetarians will find a welcome home here, as will gluten-free diners. Most items can be tweaked—without upsetting the flavor balance—to suit your needs. No need to ask for a separate menu; everything is clearly marked, including potential dish modifications.

Diners for whom texture is paramount, look to Hai Hai for chewy, squishy, crunchy, juicy satisfaction. The Vietnamese crepes invite you to dig in with your hands: Cup the lettuce leaf in your palm, rip a crispy-chewy bit from the crepe, pile on herbs, shrimp, and fatty hunks of pork, roll it up, and dip it in the nuoc cham. The brunch-time omelette banh mi places a pillowy egg patty between two pieces of soft French bread, layering in pickled veggies, pâté, chili jam, aioli, and the unmistakable oomph of hoisin sauce for one of the most texturally satisfying, devour-able sandwiches in town.

The drinks menu could warrant its own article, from the refreshing Indeed Bia Side, brewed specially for Hai Hai with lemongrass, citrus, and ginger, to my new favorite bloody Mary in town, lifted up from brunch banality by carrot juice, ginger, and fish sauce. A Vietnamese iced coffee is boosted with coconut rum and laced with cinnamon, while drinking vinegar seems to be the pork floss of the cocktail list: It sounds like it would spoil the party, but winds up hitting the high note in Tour Bus Tales, a summery blend of pisco, ginger, lemongrass, and cava. The menu also features at least two time-saving tricks from Hola: a batch-made sangria and whirling vats of boozy slushees. Try the Lychee Keen; its perfumed Elderflower liqueur and absinthe rinse make drinking a slushee feel very mature.

The ability to deliver these cold drinks and hot plates in a flash was critical this winter, when tables were always full and the wait times were sometimes punishing. Now that it’s summer, Hai Hai’s beach-vibes patio is open, effectively doubling the dining space (another trick lifted from Hola’s book). The tables still fill up, and like Hola, Hai Hai doesn’t take reservations for fewer than six people and won’t seat incomplete parties. But if you’re in for a wait, the bar is a pleasant place to while away the time.

As for the name Hai Hai, it’s Vietnamese for “two two”—as in, the Double Deuce. It’s a thoughtful homage to the former Nordeast fixture, but it’s also a hint about how things work around here: You take a little from the past and you keep working.

Click here to view our photo slideshow of Hai Hai

2121 University Ave. NE, Minneapolis
entrees: $9-$16, drinks: $6-$9