Jake Polt is the Kitchen Director at Ginger Hop (201 E Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.746.0304), the newest addition to the Northeast neighborhood. Polt is part of the four-person team behind the restaurant, an Asian-inspired eatery with a twist of familiarity. (Kimchi Reuben, anyone?) All four worked together at Chiang Mai Thai for more than 10 years. Together they’ve revamped the vacant Times Bar and Cafe space into a locale that marries the feeling of an old English pub with colonial Vietnam. “Ginger” represents the Southeast Asian influence. “Hop” references a menu centered around beer.
In addition to Ginger Hop, the team will be unveiling Honey around December. Honey, a casual and relaxed lounge-style space, will be set in the basement underneath Ginger Hop and feature a small-plates menu and extended cocktail list.
Ginger Hop is slated to open today (Monday, Sep. 21) over the lunch hour.
How did Ginger Hop come to be?
I was in L.A. last spring, doing some soul searching. While I was out there, I staged a couple times in different restaurants, trying to see kitchens that weren’t Asian. I wanted to see how they were set up. I thought, I need to either make a run at a concept, or I need to get into a different field all together. During the trip I had an “Aha” moment, and the concept behind Ginger Hop came to me. I thought, what a great way to utilize beer, in cooking and with a great beer menu. I also loved the idea of working with an Asian menu, without claiming to be authentic.
Tell us about the team.
The owners are Charles Lodge, Katey Leitch, Jon Provenzano, and myself. Charles and Katey own Chiang Mai Thai as well. We’ve worked together for 14 years; from Sawatdee, to Chiang Mai Thai, and now venturing into Ginger Hop. I was also with Charles and Jon at the 4th Street Bar and Café back in ’95. Together we’ve spent a lot of time in Thai cuisine. We all know our strengths and weaknesses. We know how to motivate each other.
Katey and Charles excel at the business side of the restaurant. Jon’s on the bar side, and I head the kitchen. We all meet in the middle with the service.
It sounds like there is a strong sense of camaraderie.
From the beginning, we said, “Ditch the ego.” We want to find people who want to work, who want to be a part of something that’s fun, you know? Team is first and foremost here, followed by cross-training and developing, and allowing people to go into whatever they want to do. If they are in the back house and want to go to the front house, if they’re bartending and want to manage, if they eventually want to open their own place, let them learn. Give them what they need.
I also want to build a team of people who are passionate about cooking. People with flexible minds, who want to create new dishes, work on things they love to do, with the opportunity eventually to move downstairs to Honey. It’s a cook’s dream. They get to move between two different places. It’s really been a treat to work with this team. They are so energetic. They just love cooking.
We’re a bit more laissez faire. We like to operate organically. We breathe, and move, and allow things to grow and take their natural course. I think Jamie Bollman, our sous chef, described it best when he said: “We will get all of this food down as soon as the kitchen tells us to.” He meant the space will open itself up to us. We will learn how it wants to be handled. You have to let the building speak for itself.
And the menu?
We have standard Asian fare: Thai fried rice, satay, a pho. We want to scope the Pan Asian cuisine in general. I love Southeast Asia, that’s sort of where our flavor profiles originate from. But I’d love to explore tastes from other areas, like the Philippines, or India.
We’re really playing with beer too. General Tsing’s Chicken is made with Tsingtao beer. The Hop Wings have a Summit EPA reduction sauce. Our Beef Satay has Guinness in it. The Tiger Shrimp is beer-battered in Tiger beer. We’re trying to have fun. We don’t want to take ourselves too seriously.
We try to buy local whenever we can. When you can you should try. I spent a couple early mornings with the guys at Coastal Seafoods. They let me come in at 5:30am to watch them break down fish and ask questions. I wanted to see the mongers at work. We buy our pork from Fischer Farms in Waseca. Tim Fischer is really, just a great guy. The sesame bun on the Salmon Burger comes from Saint Agnes Bakery in Saint Paul. We’re composting. We’re taking as many measures as we can to make it green.
I got a call from Charles while I was working on the business plan for Ginger Hop. He was interested in a new space, didn’t have the time to go solo, and had heard I was working on something. So together we saw a few locations. None of them seemed to fit. Then we came here, to the old Times space, and it was perfect. Really, it only took a week for us to sign and have a lease. Ginger Hop became East meets Northeast cuisine. We knew there wasn’t a lot of Asian around this area, at least not this size.
The neighborhood is great. I used to train martial arts down the street, at the Minnesota Kali Group. This was in ’97. Plus my best friend George grew up in Northeast. He told me the tales of every building, what they used to be. We frequented all the bars around here. To be honest, my history in Northeast revolves mostly around drinking.
What’s it like to be with a restaurant from concept to opening?
This is the first time I’ve been with a restaurant during an opening. I came on board at Chiang three months after it opened. So this is new and it’s completely exciting and overwhelming. There are times I want to stick my head in the oven and turn on the gas. There are always bumps in the road. You find away to get over, around, or even through them.
For example, we ordered a single-burner wok awhile back. The shipping ended up being delayed, and they weren’t going to deliver until after we opened. So, here I am, scouring the country for a single wok. And it was tough. I had one distributor say to me, “I’m not in the business of delivering magic. I deliver equipment.” But then, one of the distributors I work with mentioned he had a double-burner wok. At first I thought there was no way it would work. Usually two burners are 60 inches. I had 43 inches to work with. By luck it happened to be a custom-made 42-inch wok that someone had ordered, and just never picked up. It was like the hand of God waved at me and said: “You will live another day.”
But in the end, all the bumps are worth it. It’s such a great thing to be able take this next big step. There are so many things that go along with the evolution of a restaurant, finding your stride and rhythm. But those are the fun things. Really, it’s what you asked for.
How do you want patrons to feel when they come here?
We really want this place to be a fun, neighborhood bar. It’s not meant to be snooty or pretentious. We don’t want to try to be something that we aren’t. It’s important to us that we listen to our customers as much as we can. If they have an idea for the menu, we’re open to it. We’ll take them seriously. There are certain boundaries, we might not have the equipment or it might not fit in the concept. But we’re willing to play, especially with the beer profile.
We’re trying to keep things affordable. We want people to leave full and not carry out tons of takeout with them. Our goal is to make sure they are getting a substantial amount of food, but not too much.
We just want people to come in, relax, enjoy. We want to give them a retreat from the downtown life, the traffic, the bottleneck. How about a different kind of bottleneck?
It sounds like you’re familiar with beer. Any favorites?
My number one is Summit EPA. Second would probably be Bells Hop Slam, but that’s a seasonal. Sierra Nevada is up there too. Love the pale ale. That being said, I won’t turn down a cold PBR on a warm day.
Will you cap off opening night with one?
I will definitely end Monday night with a beer. Followed by a Johnnie Walker Black.
UPDATE: See our full review of Ginger Hop.