The rumors are true: Thom Pham is returning to the south Minneapolis location he made famous.
For Pham, the corner of 26th and Nicollet brings back memories both bold and bittersweet. He launched his most successful restaurant, Azia, on this block. He also got beat up in the alleyway during a terrible business year. In 2010, he left the corner following a dispute with his landlord and opened Wondrous Azian Kitchen downtown.
Now he's back and ready to reopen a new version of Azia, possibly by late April.
He's calling it Azia Market Bar & Restaurant, a neighborhood joint that will look much different from the hot spot he held from 2003 to 2010.
"I never wanted to leave this space," Pham said on Tuesday. "That was a tough decision. It broke my heart."
It was only a few years ago that Pham was riding high in the restaurant scene. But the road has been a rocky one since the 2008 closing of Temple, his experiment in high-end dining on the edge of downtown. He's tangled in court with his adoptive siblings. He's been hounded by the state for unpaid sales tax. Recently, he was hit again with food-code violations.
Pham told me he takes full responsibility for those issues, and remains optimistic about the future.
Pham said Azia Market has a new landlord who's been very helpful, and he has an investor this time. His bar will join a bustling corner, home to several new businesses, including Eat Street Social, Vertical Endeavors and Dunn Bros. He's going through the liquor-license process now.
I toured the construction Tuesday. The layout is basically Azia in reverse: The dining room is now dominated by a massive central bar. A red pergola looms overhead. The old bar area will be an intimate dining room.
Sticking with his neighborhood theme, Pham said his Asian menu will be stocked with small plates ($9-$14) meant for sharing. He seemed most excited about his raw bar.
Wondrous will remain open, but it's going through some changes. He's knocked back prices and is using the dining room for private parties only. Pham wants to focus his energy on the busier bar side. He plans to operate both restaurants (plus Thanh Do in St. Louis Park) simultaneously.
Pham admits he's had a tumultuous couple of years. "Like they say, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," he joked. "If anything, I've learned what not to do."
There was one big question the restaurateur didn't have an answer for: Will his famous cranberry puffs return to Azia? Pham said he wasn't sure. He wants to start fresh.
Who can blame him?