Thom Pham in downtown Thursday. Photo by Jerry Holt.
In what might be the biggest gamble of his career, the flashy, gregarious restaurateur Thom Pham is heading back to downtown Minneapolis.
He will open his Wanderers Wondrous Azian Kitchen across from Block E in a location that has proven toxic to other restaurants, including Musashi, Zake and the Olive Garden. On Thursday, Pham stood bright-eyed inside the gutted space at 533 Hennepin Ave. S. in the Plymouth Building, as his team began work on the 9,000-square-foot restaurant.
Pham’s first foray into downtown ended with his upscale Temple restaurant fizzling in 2008.
“This opportunity is different, the timing is different and the location is obviously different,” he said.
Pham will shutdown Azia, his south Minneapolis restaurant that has been a late-night hot spot for years. He plans to close Azia in early August, then immediately open Wanderers with much of the same staff. He still waiting for the new liquor license to get city approval.
Pham is at a crossroads in his career. In May, he moved his original St. Louis Park restaurant, Thanh Do, to a larger space across the street. But in June, he sold Thanh Do’s under-performing sister location in Anoka. He still owns two E. Lake St. properties, which he had once hoped to turn into bars.
Pham said moving his Azia operation into downtown came out of necessity. The building that houses the restaurant at the corner of Nicollet and 26th St. is in rough shape, with leaky ceilings and a landlord that has done little to improve conditions, Pham said.
“That doesn’t mean we’re done with Eat Street,” he said. “I put so much energy and love into that neighborhood. That’s my home.”
But for now, it’s full speed ahead at Wanderers. Like other bar owners who have moved into downtown’s entertainment district, the Twins ballpark was a major attraction for Pham. He said he learned “what not to do” in downtown after striking out with Temple.
While Wanderers will feature Pham’s usual high-end Asian fusion cuisine, it will also offer a more accessible menu for the late-night downtown crowd, including those baseball fans. The space is basically split into two sides. Pham will transform one half into a classic, early-20th century Asian dining room with ornate hand-carved woodwork. The other side will be a contemporary nightlife destination with DJs and a long 45-foot bar.
With the deadline he’s given himself, Pham knows he has a lot of work to do.
“When this is all done, I’m going to go to a hotel and throw my phone and keys away and sleep for three days,” he said.