Hai Hai: The Couple behind an Artful, Emerging Restaurant Group in Minneapolis

 In ALIVE, Interiors

The rise of food trucks had begun, and, on a whim, Twin Cities native Christina Nguyen and husband Birk Grudem decided to abandon two successful careers and start one together. He’d been working as a screen printer and t-shirt designer and bartender, while Nguyen put her business degree to use running a boutique that sold locally designed clothing, when they decided it was time for a major shift. What resulted were 12- to 16-hour days churning out flavorful Latin-inspired cuisine that would catch the city’s attention and near-immediate recognition, a foreshadowing of the acclaim that would land Nguyen on the list of James Beard Award semifinalists for Best Chef: Midwest in 2018.

They served arepas—a classic South American dish of cornmeal cakes filled with meat and cheese and hard to come by elsewhere in the area. The food truck Hola Arepa quickly formed a fan base, which supported a brick-and-mortar location in Minneapolis’ Kingfield neighborhood. The young restaurateurs then opened a second eatery, Hai Hai, in northeast Minneapolis. Just as at Hola Arepa, Nguyen assumed the role of head chef, while Grudem handled all front-of-house matters. The move brought fast, hard-won success in an industry with daunting turnover and failure rates.

Hai Hai: The Couple behind an Artful, Emerging Restaurant Group in Minneapolis

Hai Hai’s Vietnamese focus pays homage to Nguyen’s family and heritage, as her parents were both born and raised in Vietnam. During her travels there with Grudem, they discovered unique dishes that weren’t being served in their hometown, which encouraged them to open Hai Hai.

How did you make your way into the restaurant industry?
I didn’t get my start in a traditional way. I went to school for business, but cooking is a passion I’ve always had. Before my husband and I got married, we were working on separate endeavors and felt like we really needed to shake it up. We thought it would be fun to have our own food truck. I don’t know why we thought that [laughs]; It’s so much work—but it’s not the same as spending $500,000 on a restaurant build-out.

That was Hola Arepa, which had a very slim menu of things I’d tried when I traveled abroad.

We had five different kinds of arepas with a few different sides. Then during the off-season, and depending on how cold the winter was, Birk and I would spend three or four months traveling to South America and Southeast Asia, exploring and trying new food. We continued to run the food truck for catering and special events for a few years after opening our first restaurant, and then we opened Hai Hai. The whole process has been very intuitive.

Your parents immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam. What have they shared with you about that process and their life there?
They actually lived in Saigon and fled from the war in 1975. They told me a bit about it when I was a kid. As time went by, I gathered more information and started asking deeper questions. It’s a painful memory, so it’s not something they often share about. Before coming here, they’d never even seen snow before. A cool day where they lived in Vietnam would be 90 degrees. But really, they were just happy to start a new life that wasn’t under communism.

I’ve been to Vietnam four times, and my parents didn’t want to come back with me for the first three times. It was really important for me to see where they’re from, but they hadn’t returned since they fled. I would ask them to come with me, and every time they would say something along the lines of, “It didn’t go so great the last time we were there—we’ll pass.” They did finally give in and go back to Vietnam after all, in January, and they loved it.

Hai Hai: The Couple behind an Artful, Emerging Restaurant Group in Minneapolis

How have your travels to Vietnam and Southeast Asia inspired the menu at Hai Hai?
Birk and I tried so many things there that we could never get in Minneapolis, where many of the local restaurants were barely scratching the surface of each type of cuisine. I’ve always found it interesting to serve people something they haven’t tried—that’s why we originally started the arepa business. At the time, most people here hadn’t tried cuisine like that. There is also a strong Vietnamese population here in the

Twin Cities, so we knew there would be an audience that would fully appreciate what we wanted to do.

Your parents must be really proud of you.
Ha! They’re as proud as Asian parents can be. For a while, I think there was a sense of, “Why can’t you get a real job?” But now that the restaurants are successful, I think they’re proud.

There’s something safe about taking the corporate route, which was where my business degree could have led. Defying that certainly comes with some fear. But the restaurants have been successful, thankfully, and we’ve just kept growing.

How do you and your husband manage both a marriage and business?
I don’t think it’s something everyone should or can do. After spending long hours in a small, cramped space like a food truck, it really builds your relationship. My husband is my favorite person. We try hard not to hang onto arguments. You have to shake things off, especially in the restaurant industry. If one of us worked on the restaurant and one of us had another job, we’d never see each other. But we get to be creative and work on it together.

Hai Hai: The Couple behind an Artful, Emerging Restaurant Group in Minneapolis

What was your inspiration for the beef larb recipe you shared with us?
Larb is a delicious, classic Thai meat salad, and this is our simplified version that is easy to cook at home. It’s a dish that hits all the notes of fresh, tart, umami, herbaceous and spicy—all the things we love at Hai Hai.

There’s also a bit of crunch and nuttiness from the toasted rice powder that really takes this dish to the next level. When served with beautiful seasonal crudité, it’s a great dish that’s protein-packed but also really light and refreshing.

Tell me about a few items on the menu and how you chose them.
In the spirit of our goal to bring people food they probably haven’t tried before, one of my favorites on the menu is the banana blossom salad, which is very popular in Vietnam. Banana blossoms have an amazing flavor and texture. And because most people aren’t familiar with dishes like that, most restaurants won’t put them on their menu, because they don’t think they’ll sell. But I like to push the envelope.

There’s also an amazing dish from the northern capital of Vietnam—Hanoi—called Cha Ca La Vong. It’s made from pan-fried fish that’s been coated in turmeric, cooked with dill and scallions, topped with fresh herbs and served over rice noodles. It comes with nuoc cham and a pineapple-shrimp paste sauce—which sounds terrifying, but it’s absolutely delicious. That’s another interesting, eclectic dish you probably won’t find on the menu at Vietnamese restaurants here. A lot of these ingredients are also hard to source, so we definitely pride ourselves on finding those hard-to-get ingredients, even though it’s a lot of extra work.

Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Volume 18, Issue 1, available now online. You can order a print copy here, or pick one up at these locations.

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