Preparing a beer dinner at Dangerous Man Brewing Co. this past spring, Yia Vang could see it: The tables were laid out just so, and the food on the plates was from menu items he was experimenting with for a future restaurant, Vinai. It looked right.
At that point, Vinai had been in the works for years. But financial setbacks kept plaguing its progress, and the passion project for this rising star chef still didn't have a home.
That night, "I got super-emotional, because for the first time, there was hope," Vang said. His vision for a warm and inviting dining room where he could showcase his deeply personal take on Hmong American cuisine had come to life in the homey, plant-filled taproom.
And he had a secret.
After a couple of James Beard nominations and a string of high-profile television appearances, including a standout episode of "Iron Chef," Vang started getting some calls. A group of out-of-state real estate investors wanted to back his restaurant. And the building they wanted to buy for Vinai? The historic Northeast Bank Building, anchor of the ever-evolving corner of 2nd Street and 13th Avenue NE. in Minneapolis — and home to Dangerous Man's taproom for the past decade.
Practically bursting with giddiness at that beer dinner, Vang pulled aside his good friend, Dangerous Man co-founder Sarah Bonvallet, and whispered, "Hey, we should have a conversation about something."
Now, Vang and Bonvallet are letting everyone in on the secret. After a trailblazing 10 years in northeast Minneapolis, Dangerous Man's taproom is closing. And in a serendipitous changing of hands, Vang's long-awaited restaurant Vinai is moving in. His backers have purchased the building, and the Union Hmong Kitchen chef even owns a small slice of it — a possible first, he says, for a Hmong American restaurateur.
The taproom's long run ends Oct. 21. After a deconstruction process for the brewery, followed by renovations, Vinai is aiming for a spring 2024 opening. ("That's Minnesota spring," Vang said jokingly, which is to say, maybe summer.)
Dangerous Man was there before any of the others. With her husband, Rob Miller, Bonvallet launched the microbrewery in 2013. They were among the first wave of small, independent beer entrepreneurs establishing taprooms in the Twin Cities following Surly's 2011 fight to change Minnesota liquor laws to allow brewers to sell pints on site.
"We were part of it from the very beginning," Bonvallet said. "We dove in 100% for the last 10 years and gave it our all."
Six years ago, Bonvallet and Miller purchased a hobby farm about 50 minutes outside of the Twin Cities. More recently, they opened a production facility close to the farm that has made it possible to distribute their beer well beyond the taproom. Doing what they love only 8 minutes from their home started to become more appealing.
Meanwhile, Dangerous Man's lease in the Sheridan neighborhood was nearing its end, and their landlord put the building up for sale. They were faced with a decision: try to hang on to the space under new landlords — and all the uncertainty that would bring — or move on and dig into new challenges on the farm.
The answer became clear.
"When you do stuff for passion and not for money, you owe it to yourself to constantly look at your own life and ask, 'What am I doing in the business that I'm really loving and enjoying?' And when that starts to change, you owe it to yourself to change your business," Bonvallet said.
"Rob and I are going to make sure the business reflects what we want in our life right now, which is really different than what we wanted 10 years ago."
The craft beer scene is different today, too. The market is saturated with small brewers. The economic aftershocks from COVID still haunt the industry. And people just aren't going out like they used to, Bonvallet has noticed.
"Just to hold onto something because it's always been there isn't a good enough reason anymore," she said. As inseparable as the brand has become from its taproom, "for me, a building is a building. This isn't an end to our business, it's just this evolution."
That's not to say she didn't have strong feelings about who or what should take over the space. "The most important part to me was that it remained kind of a community space that fit the neighborhood. I just didn't want it to turn into a Starbucks. So when I learned about this, I was like, holy [expletive]!" Her mouth dropped.
"I feel like, even though I don't own the building, my friend is buying my house and it's really cool," she said.
The shock was mutual. Vang and Bonvallet had been friends for five years, ever since he catered a dinner at her farm. He hangs out at Dangerous Man. "The first time I went there with my buddies, I never would have thought this was going to be the home," he said.
There's not too much he wants to do to the space, which is being designed by Christian Dean Architecture of Minneapolis. The big bar is staying put, thanks to a series of enormous and unmovable pillars. An open kitchen will replace the brewing area. Local artist Xee Reiter is contributing artwork. "But you're gonna come in and you're gonna feel like 'I've been here before,'" Vang said. "If you close your eyes a little bit, you hear the clamor and you hear the talking, and it's like, Dangerous Man is still here."
And its beer will always be on tap, Vang vows.
"I really want to clearly communicate to Sarah and Rob that if this is the decision you guys want, of closing things down and moving forward, trust us to know what this place means to you and let us carry the next 10, 15, 20 years in this spot."
Bonus: Vang already has an in with the neighbors. His dream is to coordinate a culinary block party. He told Romero, "This is the closest we're ever getting to be roommates. We're going to take cans and have a string and go across the street, and we can call each other: 'Hey, amigo, send over some tortillas.' 'Send over some sticky rice.' "
Named after the Thai refugee camp where Vang was born, Vinai builds on Vang's penchant for storytelling through food, with a menu that will evoke the journey of his parents, refugees from Laos who landed in the Midwest and made a life for themselves and their children. Like at his Union Hmong Kitchen, Vang will be sharing the food he grew up with, but in a multicourse format he has previewed in pop-ups over the past few years while Vinai was lying in wait.
Now, as it says goodbye to its beloved taproom, Dangerous Man becomes part of Vinai's story, too.
"How beautiful," Bonvallet said, "that us saying yes to a change makes room for a whole new vision for somebody else."