Nightlife: A permanent address for Hola Arepa

  • Article by: MICHAEL RIETMULDER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 22, 2014 - 3:47 PM

Latin-inspired cocktails are the big difference between the popular food truck and its new Nicollet location.

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Patrons mill about outside the new Hola Arepa at 35th and Nicollet. A flip-open window continued the food-truck feel.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS • kyndell.harkness@startribune.com,

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As packed as Hola Arepa was last Friday night, it would’ve been hard to fault the bartenders had they turned into expressionless, drink-dispensing robots. Instead, they cranked up a Janet Jackson-heavy mix of ’90s rap and R&B and broke out some uninhibited dance moves while zigzagging behind the bar, keeping glasses filled.

“This place is a monster, man,” lead barman Dan Oskey said earlier in the day, while replenishing an empty refrigerator with bottled cocktails. “People want to drink. A lot.”

Who can blame them?

It was a brisk spring night, but it felt like a beach party inside the frenetic, brightly lit restaurant. The kitchen fired out shiitake cachapas — a Venezuelan sweetcorn pancake topped with a pristinely poached egg, mushrooms, a touch of truffle oil and goat cheese — while bartenders slung pre-bottled and other potions, including a rum-blending Dark n’ Stormy temperately spiked with a souped-up version of Oskey’s habanero bitters.

The brick-and-mortar iteration of the Latin American food truck hasn’t stopped buzzing since it opened a few weeks ago in south Minneapolis. Owners Birk Grudem and Christina Nguyen hadn’t even gotten around to changing their “coming soon” sign and already, “our heads are spinning. In a good way,” Nguyen said.

She and Grudem launched their mobile kitchen three years ago, but a sit-down restaurant was always the dream. Now having taken over the former El Paraiso space at Nicollet Avenue and 35th Street, the couple have bolstered their arepas (Venezuelan griddle cake sandwiches) repertoire with other snacks and small plates, including indulgent fried arepa balls stuffed with goat cheese and jalapeños. However, the best addition is the bar program.

In his pre-food-truck life, Grudem tended bar at Bradstreet Craftshouse and the fabled Town Talk Diner. But rather than go it alone he tapped Oskey, a friend and longtime booze guru at St. Paul’s Strip Club Meat & Fish. The cocktailing twosome worked together at the Longfellow Grill nearly a decade ago and often discussed a reunion.

“When they first got the spot, we were at dinner and I was thinking they were going to pop the question,” Oskey recalled. “They didn’t. I was thinking, ‘It’s cool, I’m happy at my other place.’ ”

A few weeks later the Hola owners put a ring on him, but they weren’t done recruiting. Another friend, Adam Harness, formerly of Cafe Maude and Town Talk, jumped on board, making a formidable jigger-happy power trio. With cocktail talent in place, the task was creating a menu that fit the restaurant’s Latin cuisine and quick-ticket service.

The resulting list leans on a handful of bottled cocktails for speed and features subtly incorporated equatorial influences. The pisco-anchored Center Court is a bright long drink with Pimm’s, an in-house honeydew/chamomile soda and grapefruit bitters, given a cordial-y depth by the South American grape brandy. Meanwhile the menu’s cursory vodka/St. Germain cocktail, Killing Moon, gets a cachaça (basically Brazilian rum) kick. The Argentinian staple fernet y cola is done to simplistic perfection, with the fernet’s bracing bitter qualities absolved by Hola’s house-made cola syrup.

“A lot of these different spirits we’re playing with, we’re not necessarily putting a full ounce-and-a-half or two ounces of pisco into a drink,” Grudem said. “We’re playing with it in smaller proportions, blending different spirits.”

The best example of this philosophy is one of the few stirred drinks, dubbed the Patriot of Elsewhere. This funky expat is a Franco-Tex-Mex Manhattan made with rye whiskey, a half-ounce of añejo tequila, a French aperitif wine, toasted coconut bitters and amaro for an Italo twist. The faintly tropical, intercontinental treaty of a drink is a steal at $8.50.

“We’re trying to operate within the Latin-American constraints as a positive thing,” Grudem said.

Eventually the drink-making minds plan to leverage a massive programmable blender left over from the previous tenant to make proper piña coladas (i.e., not artificially sweetened abominations) or “irreverent” slushy versions of classic cocktails — a trend that’s already hit larger cities including New York and Chicago.

In keeping with the hemisphere-straddling vibe, Nguyen and Grudem’s new digs have an open-air feel, thanks to a flip-up food-truck window installed in the front of their small, turquoise restaurant. The handful of barstools along the window might be the best seats in (or outside) the house, though a table on its quaint patio is a nice consolation prize.

“So many places in Central or South America keep their windows and doors open,” Nguyen said. “You don’t get that here.”

With bang-up Latin street food and the best cocktails in town south of $10, Hola Arepa feels like a summertime smash hit. And we already know they can dance.

3501 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., 612-345-5583, www.holaarepa.com, 3 p.m.-midnight Tue.-Thu., 3 p.m.-1 a.m. Fri., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight Sun., closed Mon.

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