Hai Hai opened in Northeast Minneapolis in late 2017 or early 2018. It got a lot of buzz right away as the second restaurant from the chef/owners of the previously buzzy Hola Arepa, Christina Ngyuen and Birk Grudem. We have still not been to Hola Arepa and until last Saturday had not been to Hai Hai as well. The reasons for this will not be mysterious to anyone who knows my views on the Twin Cities dining scene or knows me personally. For one thing, I am always cautious about the local food media’s penchant for over-hyping any openings that might be seen as placing the Twin Cities scene in the coastal restaurant conversation; for another, they serve a pan-Asian menu and in my experience in the US that’s rarely a good thing; and for a third, restaurants like Hai Hai (and Hola Arepa) seem to me to be aimed at people (mostly white and bougie) who do not normally go out to eat at restaurants that serve more traditional iterations of their food. And experience has led me to be wary of this phenomenon.
This may seem unfair but is not just knee-jerk bias on my part: go out to Bangkok Thai Deli or any of the better Vietnamese places in St. Paul or to Hmongtown Marketplace and you will see that the vast majority of the crowd is not hipster anglo. But that is the crowd restaurants like Hai Hai bet their business model on. You may disagree but I find this usually results in food that is toned down from the flavours that we enjoy in Southeast Asian cuisines (this, for example, was our experience at Sen Yai Sen Lek). This explains our reluctance to give Hai Hai a shot. It also lays out the biases with which we finally entered Hai hai on Saturday. And then we really, really enjoyed our meal. We didn’t love every single thing we ate—a few things were blah and a couple seemed flawed, and, yes, flavours in some dishes suffered from “refinement”—but, on the whole, the hit rate was high.
It took us a while to get to enjoying the meal though. We had a reservation for 9 pm (the earliest Saturday night reservation we could get almost a month out—I think most of their tables are reserved for walk-ins) and when we got there at 9 we were told the table would be available very soon. However, this turned out to not be true. There was a four-top empty right by the entrance but the two-top next to it which was going to be pulled alongside to seat our party of six was occupied by two women who seemed to have finished eating a long, long time ago, seemed to have paid, but were not getting up from their table. After about 10 minutes it transpired that they had not yet actually paid. Their server took their credit cards, brought the receipts back and walked away. The women showed no urgency to sign and after doing so, showed no further inclination to relinquish their table; this despite the fact that there were many people waiting to be seated mere feet from where they were sitting.
Another table for six opened up but it was quite a bit smaller and we decided to pass in the hope that the two women would finally acknowledge the existence of other people, The hostess seemed impatient with their endless lingering but I have to say that the staff didn’t seem to go out of their way to give any hints that they wanted the table back: their server did not come back to grab the signed receipts, leave alone ask them if there was anything else—hint, hint—that they might want or wish them a pointed good night; another passing server refilled their water glasses. In the end this worked out to our advantage. If the women had behaved like normal diners and left soon after getting gone—or if the servers had diplomatically indicated they should do so—we would have got a table right by the entrance. But instead we got a table in the main dining room that also opened up while the queens of obliviousness did their thing. And they hung around for another 20 minutes after we sat down. People: we’re the worst.
I know this sort of thing is difficult for restaurants to handle. On the one hand, you want to be hospitable to diners and not hustle them out; on the other, you have people with reservations who end up having to wait 30 minute for a table. Yes, we could have accepted the other table, but a) that was already at the 20 minute mark and b) it was so small that there was no way we could have fit comfortably around it or the vast quantities of food we ordered on it. Yes, diners need to be less oblivious but I think servers also need to be trained a little more in the art of gentle pressure.
Anyway, once we sat down things improved immediately. But before I get to the food and drink, a few words about the space. I had little sense of the restaurant going in but I was not expecting it to be as large as it was. There’s a small dining room right as you enter; a large bar, which has both interior and exterior patio seating; more exterior seating (much of which was not open on this chilly Saturday evening; and another large interior dining room. All of it is very attractively decorated without much recourse to the genre of ethnic chic. The restaurant is also quite dark and very, very loud. This was another reason why we were ambivalent about the table that was originally slated for us: it was close to the bar where human voices were the loudest and it was right by speakers playing very loud music. We are all old: I believe our average age was 50. And being both old and forgetful I’d forgotten to take my reading glasses with me and between the dim lighting and the tiny, faded print on the menu I could barely read it. Also my back hurt and the crazy rock and roll music the kids listen to these days was very loud as I think I just mentioned. But do you care? No.
As I said, there were six of us. The other four are people who dine out with us regularly and are both used to my dictatorial regime and, in fact, happy to relinquish agency to me. This means I was in charge of the ordering. I am, however, a benevolent despot and was careful to make sure that I ordered anything anyone else was particularly interested in and nothing anyone seemed particularly averse to. This is the sort of thing you have to do to stave off potential grumbling and eventual rebellion. What did we order?
The menu is divided into several sections: snacks, salads, plates with components that require assembly, vegetables, and a few larger plates. All of it is designed for sharing and that is what we did.
Snacks & Starters
- Pork ribs adobo: We started with a dish of Filipino origin. It was dynamite. The ribs were cooked perfectly, falling off the bone but not at all mushy and the sauce, rich and livery, was one of my favourite things at the meal. We liked it so much we got a second order.
- Cambodian pork dip and crudite/prahok ktiss: Their take on the Cambodian standard, this was quite good but not as good as the version at Kolap—some of the earthiness having been refined out of it. I will also say that when a restaurant is built on a shared plates model—as our server indicated to us—a dish like this should probably have an iteration built for larger groups. There was enough of the dip for six people to share but this was not true of the crudite.
- Steamed mussels: No complaints though about the shareability of these excellent, plump PEI mussels and especially about the excellent Thai khao soi sauce they had been steamed in. I don’t know that a bowl of it would scratch a khao soi itch for me but it was excellent on its own terms. We got a side of jasmine rice to mop up the curry and it made me melancholy to think that on most nights most of the curry served with these mussels is probably going uneaten. I thought that curry with rice was probably my top dish of the night.
- Banana blossom salad: There was a lot of stuff in this—shredded banana blossom, shredded red cabbage, shrimp, pomelo, watermelon radish etc. etc.—but it all came together wonderfully in a tangy, acidic dressing. Could have used a little more of a chilli kick in my view but very good as it was.
- Crispy rice salad/nam khao: This was excellent as well even though if you gave me a choice I would pick On’s Kitchen’s version every time.
- Beef larb: This, however, was one of the disappointments. It did not taste bad but there are far better versions to be had in humbler Thai restaurants in the Cities, leave alone at the University Ave. stalwarts. What were the problems? The texture of the ground beef was too mushy (had it sat too long in the dressing?); and it just didn’t have enough heat to balance out the acid.
- Fried brussels sprouts: This dish of fried till charred sprouts tossed in a tart-sweet vinaigrette with little chunks of crispy pork belly, however, was very good.
Sugarcane shrimp: This, we gathered, is one of their signature dishes. Alas, it left us all cold. The shrimp mousse had little discernible shrimp character and nothing really popped flavour-wise.
- Hanoi sticky rice: This was much better. We poured a fish sauce-based dressing over the bowl of sticky rice (plus ground pork, sausage, pickled veg etc.) and mixed it all up and it was excellent comfort food.
- Turmeric and dill fish: This was another dish that didn’t get us very excited. Everything was fine, it just didn’t add up to very much. However, the funky dipping sauce it came with was very good.
At around 10 pm their kitchen switches to a much more limited Happy Hour menu. From this we got the so-called “Vietnamese pizza” which is grilled rice paper with a bunch of stuff on top. It came sliced into six wedges and was very good. I would very much enjoy eating this at the bar with a beer.
We were full but split three of their four desserts between the six of us. These did not in general rock our boats.
- Vietnamese coffee pot de creme: The Vietnamese component was hard to discern and while this was, on the whole fine, it was rather by the numbers.
- Racines cake: Ditto for this flourless chocolate cake.
- Silken tofu: This, however, was the one actively bad dish on the night. Described as “soft and silky housemade tofu” on menu, what showed up was actually hard and rubbery. The missus and I love soft tofu and we couldn’t bring ourselves to finish this. And the lemongrass-ginger syrup it was floating in was overbearing and too heavy on the ginger.
For pictures of the restaurant and the food and drinks, please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on the cocktails we drank, service and overall value.
Their cocktails have a strong reputation as well and the five of the six of us who drink got one each to start: Best Life (a tequila-based cocktail; this was the missus’ and as she doesn’t drink much I had the second half of it and liked it fine); Fins Up (bourbon, rye, green chartreuse); Floating Market (dragonfruit infused vodka etc.); High Thai (this was mine and while tasty enough it basically came across as very fruity ice tea; I could barely tell the tequila and mezcal that were in it); and A Life Aquatic (mezcal, arrack, cucumber, lime).
Why didn’t we get more to drink? Well, mostly because the meal went by at breakneck speed. We ordered quickly after sitting down at 9.30 and despite ordering a lot of food we were done at 11. We could barely eat fast enough to clear space on the table for more dishes, leave alone think about getting more drinks. It was also as a result a little difficult to chat once the food started arriving. Better spacing would have been much appreciated. Next time—and there will certainly be a next time—we will order the food in waves rather than all at once (assuming they don’t require you to order all at once). Service was otherwise amiable. It’s a casual restaurant and our server was friendly and well-informed on the menu. He also checked in on us regularly despite the hectic vibe of the place.
How much did it cost? Not very much, all things considered. For all of the above plus tax and tip we paid a total of $44/head. Which means that despite overeating this was almost a third of the cost of our recent dinner at Grand Cafe. Now, it’s apples and oranges: one’s a fine dining restaurant (or at least what passes for fine dining these days), one’s more casual; one serves far fussier food than the other with more luxe ingredients; we also drank two bottles of wine at Grand Cafe. It’s also true that the meal at Grand Cafe was more consistently good from top to bottom and that the desserts at Hai Hai appear to be a bit of a weak link. But it must still be said that Hai Hai offers excellent value. If you still haven’t been as well, I’d recommend you go.
Up next from the Twin Cities will be a report on a dinner at Popol Vuh, also in Northeast Minneapolis—we are scheduled to eat there in a couple of weeks. In between I will try to wrap up my Delhi reports and make headway on my Los Angeles reports.