Even as a kid, Ann Ahmed knew the exact route of her career path. This is someone who wrote her first menu when was she was a sixth-grader.
“I’ve wanted a restaurant, for as long as I can remember,” she said. “If it’s in you, you can’t get it out of you.”
While her family was in the business, she was encouraged to direct her professional aspirations elsewhere. Rather than attend culinary school after graduating from Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Ahmed enrolled at San Diego State University and pursued a degree in elementary education.
That’s when the restaurant business called. Literally. She was on the way to her college commencement when the phone rang. There was a restaurant for sale in Brooklyn Park. Did she want to return to Minnesota and buy it?
She did, and she’s been at the helm of Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine for the past 13 years.
Now she’s embarking on the next phase of her career, launching her second restaurant, one that reflects her Laotian background.
She and her husband and business partner, Tarique Ahmed, are calling their new venture Lat 14 Asian Eatery — so named because the 14th latitude runs through Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. The restaurant is located near Boone Av. N. and Hwy. 55 in Golden Valley, in a decades-old former Perkins.
“Even with the construction going on, we still have Perkins customers walking in, ready for pancakes,” Ahmed said with a laugh. “The restaurant was a routine for a lot of people. That’s good for us, because we want to become part of their routine.”
Guided by Shea Design of Minneapolis, the building is undergoing a remarkable transformation, erasing thoughts of Tremendous Twelves and Magnificent Sevens on the both the exterior (the addition of a 50-seat patio helps, a lot) and the interior, which has been completely gutted and remade.
“The only things we kept from Perkins are a pair of sinks and a walk-in cooler,” said Ahmed. “This is our ‘Field of Dreams.’ You know, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”
Post-demolition, the wide-open dining area — anchored by a showy exhibition kitchen — is all about handsome light fixtures, reclaimed wood, sleek tile, a hefty communal table and a granite-topped bar. A metal truss roof — hidden for decades under acoustical tile — has been exposed, raising the ceiling several crucial feet.
“You don’t feel trapped now,” said Ahmed.
Instagrammers will have a field day with the eye-catching mosaic tile floors, as well as the sign in the restroom that reads, “From Asia with love” in pink neon.
“Everyone takes a bathroom selfie,” said Ahmed. “So why not make a beautiful spot? I think it will be fun. There’s going to be a long line for the bathroom.”
As for the food, “It’s inspired by my roots,” said Ahmed, who landed in Minnesota as a four-year-old refugee. The “our” is Joshua Walbolt, a Lemon Grass vet, has been tapped as Lat 14’s executive chef.
“He’s Cambodian-Thai,” said Ahmed. “What we’re going to be serving is what we’ve cooked alongside our grandmothers. For me, it’s almost like coming home, it’s about childhood. As we grow older, we seek comfort in the past.”
Ahmed and Walbolt are testing recipes right now. Expect to encounter dishes along the lines of fish wrapped in banana leaves, seasoned with dill and steamed (“Traditional and clean,” said Ahmed) and a clear broth with rice noodles, a favorite in northern Laos.
“Like pho, but easier,” said Ahmed. “No condiments. The bowl is ready when it’s served, all the flavor is already in it. You just grab a spoon and chopsticks, and eat.”
The restaurant’s target opening date is a vague “early fall.” Until then, Ahmed will be monitoring the construction progress. And cooking.
“That’s my therapy,” she said. “It’s relaxing for me. I love prep work. I don’t need music in the kitchen, I just need the rhythm of slicing and cutting.”
By the way, Ahmed hasn’t forgotten about teaching.
“I think I’m a successful restaurant owner because I trained to be a teacher,” she said. “I’m teaching staff and customers, all day. That’s the teacher in me, sharing information in hidden ways.”
As for adapting to the pressures of operating two restaurants, Ahmed isn’t worried.
“I have twins,” she said with a laugh. “This will be easy compared to dealing with them. Besides, it’s not like I just opened Lemon Grass. It’s not a baby anymore, it doesn’t need me every day. I have a great team there, with people I trust. We’ll hire people who will love this restaurant as much as I do. And my mom can’t seem to stay away.”