The first thing you need to know about Hai Hai is that if you suffer from SAD, this might be a good place for you to visit. The interior is designed to give a warm, lush feeling, with walls painted a bright jungle green and numerous green plants on windowsills and hanging from the ceiling, along with natural wood bird cages (sans birds) and soft white lighting that feels cozy and inviting. There’s no room for winter gloom here. (But we should also note that Hai Hai has an outdoor area that looks like it will be a major draw this summer.)
The food is the opposite of gloomy, as well. A playful yet thoughtful menu takes some traditional Asian dishes (and some not-so-traditional) and reimagines them, with excellent results. The old, tired cream cheese wontons ($8) gets new life with the infusion of chicken liver pate, making them richer and earthier than their strip-mall counterpart. Fried Brussels Sprouts ($8.50, above), a side dish that has become ubiquitous in recent years, is revitalized by frying the sprouts with tender chunks of pork belly, tossing them with little pillows of puffed rice and sizable pieces of fresh herbs, and serving them with a tangy nam jim vinaigrette and a mild but tasty roasted green chili paste.
The Water Fern Cakes ($8) were among the most interesting and successful things we’ve tasted in recent memory. Resembling open-faced steamed dumplings, they combine mung beans, ground pork, nuoc cham, and other ingredients to provide a tremendous amount of textural variance (everything from dense and chewy to light and crunchy) and bright, bold snaps of flavor.
All the entrees we tried were excellent, and during a period when many restaurants serve up portions designed to feed small armies, the smaller portions at Hai Hai were a welcome change. The Balinese Chicken Thigh ($14) was perfectly cooked, with a good sear on the outside but with incredible tenderness and juiciness inside. It was served over creamy coconut rice with crispy fried shallots and a velvety sauteed kale side dish. There’s nothing overwhelmingly spicy here, just good ingredients coaxed into shining on their own without being smothered.
The Turmeric & Dill Fish ($16) was similarly understated, with the light touch of turmeric serving more to deepen the dill flavor than to stand on its own. The fish, like the chicken, was a case study in how to properly cook the protein, with the mild cod bolstered by zippy greens and herbs and soft rice noodles. The dish was served with a traditional nuoc cham as well as a pineapple shrimp sauce, the latter a satisfying blend of sweet and tangy.
The Beef Grilled in Betel Leaf ($10) is a DIY affair involving lettuce leaves, rice noodles, and roasted peanuts. The beef filling was flavorful with hints of lemongrass, and the charred betel leaf gave it an earthy, pungent aftertaste that blended beautifully with the delicious pineapple shrimp sauce.
We thought the Pork Belly Vietnamese Crepe ($13) worked remarkably well considering its complexity. It was essentially a finished, composed dish of meat and bean sprouts inside a crispy rice flour crepe that could be snapped into pieces and wrapped in lettuce and then further dressed up with nuoc cham, mint, and cilantro.
While there was no dessert menu, our server noted that there were a couple of options available, and we chose the Vietnamese Che ($7). It arrived in a beverage glass and looked like a milky iced coffee, but as we stirred it, bits and pieces of various textures and flavors began to appear: Jell-O, tapioca pearls, lychee, citrus rinds. Altogether, it was a slightly sweet, very mild way to close a meal.
Like Hola Arepa, Hai Hai has a sassy cocktail list, with drinks running the spectrum from sweet to definitely not. The Bazaar Nights, Bizarre Mornings ($9), composed of rye, mezcal, and bitters, is an in-your-face drink that almost has a whiff of leather about it, while the Hanoi to Hollywood ($9) is a milder riff on a Pink Gin.
Our visit took place just two weeks after the opening, but already Hai Hai had a highly professional feel on a busy evening. Our server was friendly and helpful and had a thorough knowledge of the menu. Dishes came out perfectly cooked and hot, and water glasses were refilled promptly. It was hard to believe they’d been open only a short time.
The one thing that was missing from the menu was a take on the classic Vietnamese iced coffee. Our server appeared chagrined when we asked about it and noted that she wished that something like that was available. Maybe Hai Hai can remedy that by the summer iced-coffee season.
James Norton contributed tasting notes to this review.
Southeast Asian street food in Northeast Minneapolis
2121 University Ave NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418
OWNERS: Christina Nguyen and Birk Stefan Grudem
Tues-Sun: 3 p.m.-midnight
Full menu available: Tues-Sun 3-10 p.m.
Happy hour (separate menu):
Early: Tues-Fri 3-6 p.m.
Late: Tues-Sun: 10 p.m.-midnight (kitchen closes at 11:30 p.m.)
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes, but not taken for prime weekend hours / Yes
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $9-$16
NOISE LEVEL: Boisterous, but conversation is comfortable
PARKING: Lot and ample street parking