Who are we today, us restaurant-going Minnesotans? What do we like, what do we spend money on, what would we see in the mirror if we looked up from our plates for a moment? I can’t think of anyone better prepared to answer that than Thom Pham, owner of one of Minnesota’s largest independent restaurants (Azia) and one of its most popular long-lived ones (Thanh Do). ¶ When last most restaurant-goers heard news of Pham, he was busy opening Temple, the fanciest Asian-fusion restaurant west of Chicago. But that day has come and gone: Temple now sits empty, dark as last week’s molten chocolate cake, and Pham has licked his wounds, picked himself up, and re-entered the fray by redesigning the sushi bar that sits at the northernmost edge of the Azia complex, the sushi bar formerly known as Anemoni Oyster & Sushi Bar. It’s now called A25, and Pham’s re-entry into the restaurant scene seems a fitting occasion not just to look at the new place, but to ask some big questions of an entrepreneur who over the last decade has had a front-row seat as Minneapolis transformed itself from a city of indifferent restaurant culture (and a lot of hotdish jokes) to a city of national-class restaurants (and a lot of newcomers who think a hotdish is something that comes out of a dishwasher, and not a casserole). ¶ Yes, Pham has been doing this for a decade: He opened the St. Louis Park Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Do, which he still owns, 10 years ago and used that as a leaping-off point to found the pan-Asian restaurant Azia, in 2003, a restaurant which subsequently expanded on the corner of 26th Street and Nicollet Avenue until it was not just Azia but a complex of connected nightspots including the Caterpillar Lounge and Anemoni. A25 is more than just the latter’s replacement: It’s going to be catnip to young hipsters because the décor is fabulous, the music is cutting-edge, the price is right, and it’s always happy hour.
Want details? Okay, here goes. The décor: all exposed brick, papered with Japanese lithographs that have been scraped away, making the place feel like you suddenly found a chamber of the Tokyo subway which no one knew about and you turned it into a nightclub. The music: Of course there’s a deejay booth perched high above the sushi bar. (And here’s a handy test to tell exactly how old you are: If you watch a kid carrying a deejay bag of heavy vinyl records up a ladder and think, “Lift with your shoulders!” instead of, “I wish that were me!” then you’re exactly old.) The price: Sushi rolls mostly cost $7.50 apiece, which is to say they’re cheaper than supermarket sushi, and while the sushi isn’t of the tippity-top level you pay for at the metro’s priciest sushi bars, it’s as good as all the other ones. The happy hour: Some of those sushi rolls are only $5 during happy hour, which runs from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and 10 p.m. till 2 a.m. Astute readers will note that that is, in fact, not one happy hour, but many. Also during happy hour, a single Lincoln gets you a pair of soft steamed-rice buns filled with sweet caramelized pork or saucy vegetarian mock duck; a sweet, sticky, and craveable combination of pork belly with spinach and fried eggs; a plate of doughy, but nicely crisp dumplings filled with kabocha squash; or one of eight house-infused vodkas or cocktails, like the gingseng persimmon vodka or the lemon-litchi sake. Bottles of wine are to be had for as little as $14, and bottles of sake, from the best sake list in the state, are half price.
The menu at A25 isn’t all bargains and giggles, though. The soups are best avoided (the Tokyo-style ramen, for instance, is just sodden noodles), as are the expensive entrées, which range from leaden (sukiyaki) to heavy handed (dense and chewy caramelized pork). That said, it’s hard to think many people will be drawn to spending more when they could spend less, and I predict once the word spreads on this place that anytime a PhD candidate aces oral exams, they will head here. Anytime a graphic novelist asks a fiber artist on a date, they will meet here. And anytime a rock band needs sushi after rock band practice, they will stumble here. And if you can’t think of why anyone would want to eat cheap, good-enough sushi in a disco-slash-subway-stop, you probably aren’t looking for dinner after band practice anyway.
Is good-enough really enough? At the right price, yes. Pham tells me he has observed that Minnesotans will try anything once, but we only turn something into a regular haunt if we perceive value. “I learned so much from Temple,” Pham recently told me. “It cost so much to get that amazing amount of information, and I’m still paying for it, but I learned so much. What’s the difference between Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Chicago? I used to think: nothing. We have the same stylish smart people. But now I know: They have visitors. I see the same people here [at Azia and A25] that I saw when I worked in Uptown in the ’90s, and I saw them at Temple, too—but I only saw them once.”
Another thing Pham learned? The local significance of the doggie bag: “At Thanh Do, we have an hour wait for a table a lot of the time, and I think it’s partly because people know they can count on the food, and plenty of it. They don’t have to stop on the way home from dinner to get a burger, and they know they’re going to get enough food for lunch or dinner tomorrow. That makes them like the restaurant more.”
Once you have presented value and ample portion sizes, what next? Pham says that to make a restaurant really work in Minnesota you have to add welcoming unpretentiousness, a beautiful dining room, and some national caliber something—in Azia’s case, the sake list. Phew! That’s a tall order, but when I look at it, I do see that all our most successful Minnesota restaurants do hit all the points on the checklist. I mean, what do 112 Eatery, Broders’ Pasta Bar, Brasa, La Belle Vie, Manny’s, Tanpopo, and Chino Latino all really have in common? They offer vast portion sizes for the money spent, they’re welcoming and unpretentious, they have great dining rooms, and they are obviously, undeniably national-class on at least one level. And that, dear readers, is who you should see when you look in the mirror: Who are restaurant-going Minnesotans, today? You’re stylish and demanding, you respond viscerally to chic décor and unpretentious service, and yet, in the end, your biggest criterion is a finely honed sense of value. Is that what you see when you look in the mirror? If so, you’ll go head over heels for A25. After all, if you are what you eat, it only follows that you also eat what you are.
A25 is catnip for hipsters with Pacific Rim tastes and a Great Recession budget.
Ideal Meal: Happy-hour sushi rolls, happy-hour-priced sake, and happy-hour sweet pork buns. Good thing most of the hours are happy hours! Recent Buzz: One of the best late-night menus in Minneapolis. Hours: Happy hour 4–7 p.m., and dinner daily till 2 a.m.. Prices: $3–$29. Address: 2548 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 612-813-1200, a25sushi.com
The Perfect Drink
A25’s sake list is, without question, the best in town. Pham stocks it with a full array of the flavors the rice wine is capable of. It’s a tribute to his grandfather, a sake connoisseur who actually made his own. Try one of the sparkling sakes on a hot summer night to experience the lively ebullience of the beverage, or sample one of the winey, melon- or ocean-scented ones for a perfect sushi pairing.