Ai Hue Bakery and Deli in St. Paul
One of the ostensible benefits of chain-restaurant dining is the predictability of the experience. Whether it’s a Subway in Lakeville, Minnesota or a Subway in suburban Toledo, you are relatively assured of having the same experience — whatever quality that might be. So on the flip-side of that “benefit” is the mystery in a visit to a little hole-in-the-wall independent place. If you like mystery, then you can see one of the virtues of adventurous dining. Case in point: my recent visit to Ai Hue Bakery and Deli on the St. Paul side of the mostly-torn-apart University Avenue.
A curious side / back-alley entrance leads into Ai Hue’s, just east of University and Dale. If you’re new to the place, kudos to you if you can find it without making a wrong turn. Tinny, imported pop music filled the bustling restaurant, while bright posters and a dingy linoleum floor rounded out the ambiance. An energetic and eager young man waited on our table, and was quick to suggest the spring rolls when asked for a recommendation. As is common at similar restaurants around the Cities, the spring rolls had been pre-prepared and wrapped on a styrofoam plate in plastic wrap. Charming? It depends. Room temperature shrimp and pork usually makes me a little nervous. The flavors were fresh, the hoisin sauce with peanuts was straightforward; nothing to complain about. The banh mi with pork meatballs was good, cheap, and unusually mild. It’s worth noting the meatballs didn’t have much in the way of bright 5-spice or star anise flavor. The pickled carrots and radishes were similarly mellow — not bad, but stronger, brighter flavors would be welcome. If you’re in the area, it’d be a nice, affordable lunch at $3.75 (then again, if you’re in the area, you’ve got a dozen other Banh Mi purveyors to choose from).
An egg noodle soup with roast duck and baby bok choy had fresh veggies, and a flavorful fish sauce and star anise broth. The drifting duck breasts and legs were tender, and had clearly benefited from time in the oven before time in the broth ($6.75). Everything washed down well with a pot of jasmine tea ($1.50) and a can of “sweetened grass jelly drink” — something like miniature cubes of jello floating in a banana-flavored light syrup, which come to think of it, nearly sounds like a Midwestern creation ($1). All in all, a satisfying, hot lunch made from fresh ingredients, and sold at about the lowest price imaginable. Ai Hue’s was bustling the whole time — the lunch crowd into the early afternoon lounging crowd. If I had any hunger left, I might’ve grabbed a slice of the brightly-colored “coconut milk dessert with mung bean and tapioca” which, along with a dozen other to-go items, tempted by the register. Mystery to-go, I suppose.
Ai Hue Bakery and Deli
432 University Avenue W #B
Saint Paul, MN 55103
Mon, Wed-Fri, 9:30am-7pm
OWNER: Hue Tran
ENTREE RANGE: $3-$7
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No