Bright Colors, Deep Flavors: In Hai Hai, chef Christina Nguyen has created an autobiographical powerhouse

Christina Nguyen // Photo by Becca Dilley

Christina Nguyen // Photo by Becca Dilley

Three facts about Christina Nguyen, chef-owner at Hai Hai and Hola Arepa:

1. She believes that the customer is right…unless the subject is omelette larb. “It’s the one dish I won’t allow people to get less spicy, because I am a total tyrant and crazy person,” she says. “There are certain things that you should just eat spicy.” She is, incidentally, objectively right about this—the larb’s waves of fierce, complex, mouth-watering heat are more than a feature of the dish; they are the dish.

2. She is fearless when it comes to funky flavors. “I just put a Cambodian dip on the menu, and that means working with fermented mudfish paste,” she says. “I said to the guys in the kitchen: ‘Do you guys think you hate making pineapple shrimp sauce because it’s so funky and weird? You’re going to really love this one!’”

We’re talking in an Asian supermarket, so Christina is able to conjure up a jar of fermented mudfish without too much effort. “You put tongs in there and uncoil these insanely large couple of fillets of fish with bones and it smells like…really stinky French cheese. Delicious. So much stronger than fish sauce; it’s ammoniated and fucking awesome.”

3. If you ask her how she fits into the culinary community and how she views herself as a chef, it’ll throw her for a serious loop. “It’s a tough one,” she says. “I’m not professionally trained and I haven’t worked in tons of kitchens; I’ve only worked in my kitchen, so in a way I’m a self-created person.” She adds: “I feel like a fraud in a way! That sounds terrible, but it doesn’t feel real to me—‘Did I just make that up? Did I just make up a title for myself? Is this what people do?’”

Nguyen at the Dragon Star Supermarket in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota // Photo by Becca Dilley

Nguyen at the Dragon Star Supermarket in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota // Photo by Becca Dilley

As Nguyen wrestles with her identity as a cook, chef, and restaurateur, she’s standing between the fresh produce and deli sections of Dragon Star Supermarket in Brooklyn Park. Using ingredients from markets like this, she creates the tapestry of flavor that defines Hai Hai’s menu: waves of intense, deep, complex heat; bright herbal top notes; crispy texture; soothing funky undercurrents; and, above all, a sense of drama, of propulsive action, and of fun that gives the place its distinctive spirit and has made it one of the most celebrated Minnesota restaurants of 2018.

Taking into account what she’s been able to accomplish with Hai Hai and its sister restaurant Hola Arepa in such a short period of time, Christina’s equivocal answer to the question of her professional identity surprises us. We tell her that we expected something more along the lines of: “Yes, I’m a chef, deal with it, and everyone can fuck off.”

“Don’t get me wrong, everyone can still fuck off,” she says, laughing.

A very good year

The exterior of Hai Hai, at the corner of University Avenue and 22nd Avenue Northeast // Photo by Becca Dilley

The exterior of Hai Hai, at the corner of University Avenue and 22nd Avenue Northeast // Photo by Becca Dilley

Nguyen is not merely a chef (a fact easily confirmed by eating any of the vibrant food served at her restaurants). She and work/life partner Birk Grudem are surfing the crest of a variety of trends that have been transforming the world of independent restaurants this year.

As a prominent young chef who’s a person of color, she’s broadening what it means to dine in Minnesota, a state where “chef” and “middle-aged white guy in a hat” still line up as much as anywhere else in the U.S. or Europe. 

And by breathing a sense of place and personal biography into Hai Hai, she’s tapped into a booming consumer interest in getting past corporate mood boards and exploring spaces that tell real stories anchored in real lives. “Birk and I designed the whole place, as far as interior design goes,” Nguyen says. “We’d just say, ‘Oh, we like these elements…’ Whenever we saw something we were inspired by, we’d say: ‘Write that down in the little book!’

“There’s stuff from Vietnam there […] and when we bought our house we were opening up walls and we saw all this lath board, and we were like—that’s a really cool texture; that feels rustic,” she continues. “So many restaurant spaces feel really manicured or generic, and it’s hard to make a space just feel a little more loved and worn in.”

Decor isn’t the only thing that stands out as forward-looking about Hai Hai. Behind the scenes, the restaurant takes inspiration from Hola Arepa’s food truck origins. By emphasizing
pre-meal food prep, Nguyen and her team can sling cocktails, apps, and entrees at a ferocious rate that keeps customers happy and tables turning.

“Being prepared doesn’t mean you care any less,” she says. “We have people prepping all day; even though we open at 3pm, we have people start at 6 or 7 in the morning. We have a totally different AM crew than our PM crew. It’s a different way to build a menu, I guess.”

Flavors from next door and half a world away

The interior of Hai Hai in Northeast Minneapolis // Photo by Becca Dilley

The interior of Hai Hai in Northeast Minneapolis // Photo by Becca Dilley

The sense of biography that comes through in Hai Hai’s decor is echoed in the restaurant’s food. Nguyen is a native of St. Paul’s East Side, but her parents both came to the United States from Vietnam in 1975, later working corporate jobs for 3M. She grew up speaking Vietnamese, and made her first foray into food and hospitality with the bubble tea-focused Tea Garden, a venture she and her mom started when Christina was 17. The Hola Arepa food truck debuted on the scene in 2011; Hola Arepa the restaurant in 2014; and Hai Hai in 2017.

Hai Hai’s water fern cakes are a way to tie everything together: growing up in St. Paul, traveling the world, and transforming the Minnesota food scene with dishes that surprise and enthrall. “It’s a dish I grew up eating, going to Vietnamese Sunday school; they’d have a bunch of ladies who made snacks in the basement and would sell them to you,” says Nguyen. 

When Christina and Birk were traveling in central Vietnam for the first time, she says, they rediscovered the dish as it was served to them by a vendor sitting on some steps in the city of Hoi An.

“She had each little sauce dish filled with a steamed rice cake. So you’d just take each one, and she’d top every single one, and when you were done she’d be like, ‘Do you want another one?’ And you’d say: ‘Yeah, of course I do.’ And you’d stack up all these little plates, and you’d just sit there eating on the street.”

Hai Hai’s version of these delicate little rice cakes are a riot of flavor and texture, laced with ground pork, fried shallots, croutons, Thai chili, and scallion oil. While dishes like the restaurant’s omelette larb can come on bold and brawny, the water fern cakes are cheerful and friendly: they dazzle the palate and they disappear from the plate like a puff of delicate steam. They’re a little like Hai Hai itself, writ small: lively, ephemeral, and forever memorable.

■ ■ ■

Recipe for Omelette Larb

Omelette Larb // Photo by Becca Dilley

Omelette Larb // Photo by Becca Dilley

Yields 2 servings

Ingredients

3–4 ounces canola oil 
4 eggs, beaten well (room temp if possible)
3 tablespoons fish sauce (Tiparos brand if available)
3 tablespoons lime juice
1½ tablespoons sugar
2 crispy rice balls (optional—see the online version of this story for additional recipe)
¼ small red onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons lemongrass, minced
3 tablespoons scallion, sliced
2 Thai chilis, thinly sliced 
2 tablespoons crushed chili oil *
2 big pinches of dried crushed Thai chili powder
2 teaspoons toasted rice powder **
3 tablespoons peanuts, crushed
4 stems cilantro, leaves and thin stems only
4 basil leaves
6 mint leaves
4 tia to/purple mint/shiso leaves
6 rau ram leaves
½ English cucumber, sliced
½ head of red leaf lettuce, leaves removed
1–2 lime wedges

Directions

The ingredients for Omelette Larb // Photo by Becca Dilley

The ingredients for Omelette Larb // Photo by Becca Dilley

  1. Tear herbs into thumb-sized pieces and mix. 
  2. Whisk fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar until dissolved.
  3. Heat 1.5–2 ounces of oil in a round-bottom wok on medium heat. The oil is ready when you drop a small amount of egg in there and it floats to the top and cooks right away. 
  4. Pour half of the beaten eggs into hot oil (2 eggs worth). It should puff up immediately.
  5. Cook on one side for a couple seconds until lightly browned, then flip the omelette in the oil and continue to cook for a few more seconds. 
  6. Once egg is cooked through, remove it from the oil and rest it on a cooling rack or some paper towels. Discard oil.
  7. Repeat frying process again for other omelette using fresh oil.
  8. Fold omelettes in half and slice in ½-inch strips. Season with kosher salt to taste.
  9. Break up crispy rice balls (if using) into thumb-sized pieces. 
  10. With a large spoon, lightly mix crispy rice, omelette strips, red onion, lemongrass, scallion, all 3 types of chilis, and half of the torn herbs with fish sauce and lime juice mixture. Coat but don’t break the omelette while slowly mixing.
  11. Put omelette larb onto a serving plate and garnish with peanuts, toasted rice powder, and the other half of the torn herbs.
  12. Garnish side of plate with sliced cucumber, lettuce, and lime wedges.
  13. Squeeze lime if more acid is desired.
  14. Eat omelette larb by scooping with cucumber or wrapping it in lettuce.

*Hai Hai makes their own but you can buy chili oil.  Make sure it isn’t strained and has crushed Thai chili in it.

**You can buy toasted rice powder, or make it: On medium heat, slowly dry-toast uncooked sticky rice in a skillet and stir until it’s a rich golden brown color and has a nutty and toasty smell and flavor. Pulse it in a spice grinder or grind with mortar and pestle until it’s a coarse powder.  


Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here

 

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