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Hola Arepa owners unveil new Asian street food spot in former strip club

The enterprising couple behind Hola Arepa are about a week away from launching their second restaurant, and it's one that’s bound to attract a flurry of attention.

After months of planning and construction, Christina Nguyen and Birk Grudem are placing the finishing touches on Hai Hai, an homage to the street food culture they love to immerse themselves in when they travel in Southeast Asia.

Working from their own design, they’ve taken – and utterly transformed – a former northeast Minneapolis strip club (gentrification at its finest, right?). The former 22nd Avenue Station looks nothing like it did six months ago.

“It was a kooky building,” said Nguyen. The structure dates to 1906 and was originally a corner grocery. It was converted to a bar, post-Prohibition, in 1934.

When they started opening up walls, the couple made a few charming discoveries. World War II air raid posters. Polish polka band memorabilia. Menus from the 1970s advertising 25-cent gin and tonics.

Oh, and two gigantic windows, now back in business. The dining room floor is covered in what they believe is the building’s original tile, and wood floors were retained, warts and all (yes, look closely enough and you’ll see the round spot where the strippers’ pole was once anchored).

After gutting the place, the couple introduced just about every warm tropical color in the Crayola lexicon, a visual device that'll surely keep us warm during our gray and seemingless endless winters.

“The décor is inspired by the Vietnamese city of Hoi An," said Grudem. “We love it there, and we tried to re-create the feeling of that romantic city."

Nguyen said that building a restaurant from scratch is "awesome, and it’s stressful. "We want it to be perfect, and if it’s not, then it’s on us. Someday someone will probably look back at what we’ve done and say, ‘What were they thinking?’”

Until then, there's plenty to see. The restrooms are bound to be talkers, with private stalls accessed through French colonial-inspired shuttered doors and lined in a half-dozen wallpapers featuring equatorial patterns (play “Where’s Waldo” with lemurs and cockatoos) in lively colors.

“I spent a lot of time online, looking for wallpaper,” said Nguyen. “At a certain point you’re, like, ‘I want wallpaper everything.’”

The spouses collected birdcages and pineapple-shaped light fixtures – and carefully packed them into seven gigantic boxes – during a 10-day visit to Vietnam last winter.

Nguyen fashioned hand-woven fans into the bar’s light shades. “I'm craft-ey," she said. "But I broke my sewing machine doing it.”

Other touches? The gold-painted metal grille behind the bar, fabricated by a northeast Minneapolis craftsman, incorporates a subtle banana leaf pattern.

Concrete breezeway bricks – after much searching, the couple discovered a St. Cloud company that produces them – are another shoutout to a sweltering region that makes ingenious use of airflow devices. The bar’s chairs reminded Nguyen of chairs in her grandparents’ house, and when it debuts next spring, the patio will be covered in the kind of tiny plastic chairs and oilcloth-covered tables that are prevalent across Vietnam.

The dining room and bar seat 120 (by comparison, Hola Arepa fills at 60), and that expansive outdoor patio – connected to the bar through a series of pop-out windows – has a capacity of about 100.

Grudem said that the bar will specialize in “refined tropical cocktails" that showcase ingredients of the region (provided photo, above).

For example, an Old Fashioned will feature a house-made Vietnamese cinnamon liqueur (baskets of bark-covered, tube-shaped cinnamon are featured up and down the concrete-topped bar), a margarita will be made with tequila steeped in green mangoes and dragon fruit will be steeped in vodka and mixed with preserved lemon and jasmine syrup for a bright pink variation on the Aviation. Oh, and there will be Thai drinking vinegars, infused with ginger, lemongrass and lime leaf.

“It’s all the flavors we love in Thai cooking,” said Grudem.

He’s most excited about the bar’s sugarcane press, which will be utilized to produce Hai Hai’s house cocktail, a blend of sugar cane juice, freshly squeezed lime juice, ginger syrup and a spirit of the drinker’s choice. “Gin, vodka, rum, they all work well,” said Grudem. “It’s a very malleable formula. We’ve been wanting to do sugarcane cocktails for a while.”

Right now, they’re buying up stalks of the stuff at every Asian supermarket in town. “But we’ve found a distributor in Florida,” said Grudem. “We’ll be getting shipments, soon.”

On the food side, “It’s the flavors and dishes that we’ve loved in our travels in Vietnam, Thailand and Bali,” said Nguyen. “We wanted to shy away from standards. Hopefully people won’t come in, look at the menu and think, ‘Where’s my noodle salad? Where’s my pho? Where’s my green curry?’” 

Instead, there are nearly two dozen options: small steamed rice cakes topped with mung beans, ground pork and nuoc cham, the pungent Vietnamese fish sauce. Or a banana blossom salad, with pomelo, or grapefruit. Or chicken thighs with a shallot-lemongrass relish. And crispy crepes fashioned from coconut milk, rice flour and turmeric and filled with herbs. (In the provided photo, above, dishes -- starting in the lower left corner and moving clockwise -- are steamed rice cakes, banana blossom salad, fried rice cakes, baby clams with sesame rice crackers, sugarcane shrimp, snails with fish sauce and Vietnamese crepe).

“We’re going through a wild amount of herbs,” said Nguyen with a laugh. “But that’s what makes Thai and Vietnamese food so good. It’s such a bright, fresh way to eat.”

The moderate prices are by design. “We want to keep our food accessible,” said Nguyen. “And shareable. Rather than ordering a big bowl of pho that’s all yours, we want to encourage communal dining.”

If all goes as planned, the restaurant will open on Wednesday, Nov. 29. (The name means two two, a playful riff on the strip club’s “Double Deuce” nickname. Here's a 2016 photo via Google Street View.)

Hours? The doors will open at 3 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. weekends; with a brunch menu materializing in about a month. 

Look what's open: St. Paul's first Spyhouse Coffee

St. Paul’s first Spyhouse Coffee opened for business this morning promptly at 6 a.m.

“I haven’t been up this early since…I can’t remember when,” said owner Christian Johnson with a laugh. “Even my dog didn’t get up.”

But it seems as if the rest of the neighborhood is filled with caffeine-seeking early risers. By sunrise, the place was doing a brisk business, with smartphone-wielding customers snapping images left and right. By noon, the corner of Snelling and Palace is surely going to be the 651’s Instagram hot spot, and then some.

And why not? Like all Spyhouse locations – there are four others, all in Minneapolis – it’s a style-conscious space, one that takes full advantage of its 1930s-era storefront roots (the building once housed a neighborhood market and was most recently an antiques store), finished with envy-inducing marble counters trimmed in trendy brass, and plenty of Johnson's sharp-eyed collection of collectibles. Yeah, there's a reason Spyhouse has collected nearly 33,000 Instagram followers. 

The usual Spyhouse menu is in play, with beverages fashioned from beans roasted in Johnson’s northeast Minneapolis plant. The counter boasts a full complement of beautiful goodies from Sarah Botcher’s Black Walnut Bakery: scones, croissants, cookies, muffins and other pastries.

The cozy 42-seat coffeehouse, the smallest in Johnson’s orbit, also features a backyard patio, one that’s bound to be popular when the weather cooperates. 

Find it at 420 Snelling Av. S. in St. Paul, about six blocks south of the Macalester College campus.

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