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Chef’s Dish: Hai Hai’s Christina Nguyen Returns to Roots

Christina Nguyen’s journey into restaurateur-hood was led more by business acumen than culinary dreams. Although she cooked at home since she was a child, Nguyen pursued entrepreneurial studies at the University of Minnesota. Her time spent cooking was limited to what she made for herself between classes but that didn’t stop Nguyen from creating her largest menu yet at Hai Hai, northeast Minneapolis’ new resident southeast Asian eatery. 

Nguyen appears to have an affinity for unconventional spaces. The chef got her start cooking out of a food truck after she and her husband Birk Stefan Grudem opened Hola Arepa, a food truck that later became their first brick-and-mortar restaurant. They quickly learned how to make the most out of a two-hour lunch window, streamlining dishes that could be made quickly for lines of hungry lunch-goers.

“It was my first foray into professional cooking,” says Nguyen. “It was exciting then because food trucks had just started and we built it out and were really scrappy about it.”

The word scrappy comes to mind when you see the elements she’s pulled together for Hai Hai, which is in the same building a former strip club used to occupy. While it’s a cohesive, colorful space, there’s a thread of her personality throughout it from the fan lamps she broke her sewing machine making to her recipes culled from a young lifetime of experiences.

“The DIY approach to everything in here speaks to the neighborhood because we’re out here building the stuff by hand,” Nguyen says of their chosen location.

Hai Hai won’t be reinventing the wheel, but instead will invite diners along for the journey. Those who make the trip out for pho or banh mi may need to come with an open mind. The menu is designed through the lens of travels to Vietnam, Bali and Thailand and memories of Nguyen’s own mother cooking Vietnamese food while she was growing up.

“I’ve been writing down different dishes for years for this one,” says Nguyen, who tests many of Hai Hai’s recipes on her friends, from Balinese pig roast to sugarcane shrimp.

The nam jim sauce recipe included here is intended to be shared on dishes and with friends. “I remember having it in Thailand for the first time when I was eating street food. I thought, ‘This is like crack, I could put it on anything,’” says Nguyen.

Hai Hai hopes to be as social as Nguyen, with an inviting space littered with plants her mother volunteered to keep alive, and a patio space inspired by Nguyen and her husband’s travels to southeast Asia. “We always loved sitting around on low, colorful chairs drinking beer and eating,” Nguyen says. When she’s eating locally, Nguyen enjoys fellow northeast Minneapolis spot Young Joni and On’s Thai Kitchen in St. Paul for southeast Asian fare. 

For those new to Vietnamese or southeast Asian food, Nguyen recommends randomly choosing dishes that interest you. The water fern cakes are a “fun, little bite that tastes like Vietnam” and the banana blossoms salad utilizes the blossom not usually found in Minnesota. “We brought in the colors and flavors we liked in travel,” says Nguyen. 

Nam Jim Sauce

¼ cups fish sauce
½ cups lime juice
¼ cups white sugar
¼ tsp salt
¼ cups garlic, minced
12 thai chilis, sliced thinly
¼ cups cilantro stems, finely sliced
4 leaves thai basil, chiffonade
8 leaves rau ram/vietnamese coriander, chiffonade
4 pc cilantro, top half of stems and leaves, chiffonade

1. Whisk together everything but the last three ingredients.  Let sit for at least an hour (up to a week) so the flavors can meld together.

2. Add chiffonade herbs before serving.

3. Use this as a dipping sauce for your favorite grilled seafood or meats, or toss with some roasted or fried brussels sprouts.  This tangy, herbaceous sauce is great with  things that are grilled or roasted.

Nguyen on Nam Jim Sauce: “This is a delicious Thai dipping sauce that we first encountered when eating grilled seafood in Bangkok at a street food stall.  I wanted to put that sauce on everything.  Now we use it in our fried brussels sprouts dish to cut the richness of the brussels and pork belly.”

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