If there was ever a meal that needed some conceptual busting up, it’s brunch. You’ve got your sweet (stuffed French toast, pancakes, doughnuts), your savory (bacon, corned beef hash, standard issue egg-derived whatevers), and your alcohol (bloody marys laden with gonzo chef skewers, Belinis, greyhounds). You can dial up the price point and the complexity or you can dial them down, but it’s tough to buck the reigning paradigm and find something legitimately different.
To a large extent, that’s fine: Come Sunday morning we’re all tired, and we’re often hung over at brunch, and it’s reassuring to roll into something comfortably like a blanket stuffed with pigs. But after a while, the experience gets old, and until the dim sum scene around here develops and stabilizes there aren’t all that many alternatives.
Enter Hai Hai. We enthusiastically joined the critical consensus on this Northeast Minneapolis spot that serves Southeast Asian small plates along with cocktails displaying a rummy island twist. Which is to say, “hurrah!” and “delicious!” and “more, please.”
So here’s more: A couple of weeks ago, Hai Hai rolled out its brunch program with service from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and it’s like nothing else in town. We tasted our way through most of the menu, and in a certain way, it doesn’t really matter what you get. It’s all good, it’s all vibrant, and it’s all a marvelous combination of stimulating and comforting.
On the stimulating end of things: real heat (which can be accentuated by an optional plate of spicy mix-ins), sharp bites of vinegary acid, and fantastic crunch vs. soft textural contrasts. On the comforting end of things: warm, chewy carbs like the Chinese cruller, sweet fish syrup on deftly fried chicken, tender grits, numerous poached eggs, luscious congee. No matter what you get you’re going to end up reaching across the table to try your dining companions’ food, and you’ll all be richer for the tasting.
It’s a shame that one of the best fried chicken dishes in the state is only available 10 hours a week, but that’s just the way it goes: The Thai Fried Chicken and Papaya Salad ($14.50) at Hai Hai is straight-up killer. The chicken is tender, the exterior is ridiculous crispy and full-flavored, and the bonus bits — lime-leaf honey butter, a chewy puck of sticky rice, papaya salad — are fully thought out and well integrated into the dish.
Hai Hai’s Caramelized Pork Congee ($11.50, top) is a rich, creamy, intoxicating bowl of warmth, the perfect dunking material for the accompanying savory youtiao (Chinese cruller) and a terrific receptacle for whatever kind of spicy heat you’d like to add to the mix.
The Omelette Banh Mi ($12.50) is a wonder of texture, from the crispy-chewy bread to the butter-soft eggs and the rich pate spread. We ended up throwing the accompanying fried potatoes and Garnet yams into our congee, where they played beautifully with the spice and rice.
And our Laksa Shrimp and Grits ($16) brought herbal complexity and Thai chili heat to the delicate creaminess of grits and the mellow sweetness of the well-cooked shrimp that crowned the dish.
Ruts can be comfortable, but there’s something glorious about bursting out of them. Hai Hai offers you the perfect excuse to do so this coming Saturday (or Sunday) morning.
Hai Hai, 2121 University Ave NE Minneapolis; 612.223.8640. Brunch served 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays