Q&A: Inside Vivir Pastry Chef Ngia Xiong’s Culinary Inspiration

Plus: conchas, breakfast tacos, and the sorely overlooked corn smoothies at northeast Minneapolis’ new Mexican bakery, café, and market
Vivir's pastry queen Ngia Xiong
Vivir’s pastry queen Ngia Xiong

Photo by Kevin Kramer

Vivir, a new Mexican bakery, cafe, and market, is more than a mere pivot. Chef Jami Olson launched the concept when COVID-19 seemed to foretell a shaky future for her northeast Minneapolis restaurant Popul Vuh. The result makes good use of the Spanish word for “to live.”

Since November, Vivir has carved out its own category within the Twin Cities thanks to the combined efforts of executive chef Jose Alarcon and pastry wizard Ngia Xiong. Having already slayed the set menu at Popol Vuh and the playful plates at Centro, the pair really gets to run wild at Vivir, with mole-and-salt-laced cupcakes, revelatory guava rolls, and a squishy mushroom-cheese-and-kale cemita that becomes a best-in-class breakfast sandwich with a crown of ethereal scrambled eggs. (To read more about Vivir as it looks ahead to patio season, click here.)

To get a better grasp of Vivir’s food program, we spoke to Xiong—a Laos native who emigrated to the U.S. when she was just 20 months old, and lived in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, before settling in Minnesota—about everything from transcendental breakfast tacos to sorely overlooked corn smoothies.

1414 Quincy St. NE, Minneapolis

What’s your earliest memory of living in Minnesota? 

I remember the move from Wisconsin to Minnesota—the long drive, and knowing that living in Minnesota meant being closer to my relatives. It was the summer before going into fifth grade, so I was about 8 years old. 

What always stayed at the back of my head was the knowledge that I was different from the kids around me, especially my classmates. It was obvious when you looked around and saw all these white kids with blonde, red, and brown hair, and there’s my black hair. And there were blue, hazel, green, and brown eyes, but they weren’t brown like mine.  

When did you realize baking was something you’d want to pursue as a career?

I think I’d always wanted to be a baker, especially baking cakes. One of my earliest childhood memories—and it’s very vague—was when I was in [the] Head Start [program].  We took a class trip to where a baker was decorating cakes. I didn’t remember my family ever eating cake, so this was the first time I’d ever had it.

I remember being so happy eating this cake. Truthfully, it was most likely the sugar!

What was it like being the only girl in a family with eight kids? Did your parents have different expectations for you because of it?

Being an only girl in a family of boys was awkward. Being a girl of mixed cultures was painful. I was a tomboy growing up. I didn’t wear dresses and do my hair like a good girl does. I was taught the traditions of being an obedient Hmong girl and the standards of being an obedient Laotian girl, and I always questioned why I had to do these things if my brothers didn’t have to do them!  

I look back now and see their expectations were no different for their sons and daughter: Be obedient; listen to your parents; get good grades; go to college; be a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse, a teacher. Make money and become a good prospect as a spouse, then marry a comparable husband who will take care of you for your life. Then have and raise his children, and be filial to your husband and his family, and don’t forget to be filial to your parents in their old age and take care of them.

While these are all the basics of what every parent wants for their children, I always questioned the nuances of these expectations. Why were these my only choices for the rest of my life? To stray from this plan was to ruin my life.

How important was food and tradition within your family?  

Food and tradition go hand in hand within my family. Growing up, the best, most memorable food would only ever be available when we had traditional and celebratory events like the spirit calling, weddings, births, and name changes. 

Did you help out with dinner and family gatherings a lot?

Within my family, yes, I did. As soon as I was capable enough in the kitchen, my mom had me helping her with kitchen duties. My earliest memories were of about 6 or 7 years old, I think.  

With family gatherings, not so much. I was lucky enough to be small for my age, so the elder ladies always thought I was too young to work in the kitchen at gatherings. Besides, I had older female cousins who were better at socializing and wanting to be in the limelight. I stayed away from that.

You see, from my view, helping at family gatherings was never completely altruistic. There was always an ulterior reason why younger girls would help. By helping, it meant several things: you were a very obedient daughter, you had great cooking skills, you were mature enough to gossip with the older ladies, and you were ready to be married off.  

Were you always more into sweet than savory dishes?

I like both equally, which I know can be odd.  

What are a few cakes you used to make for friends and family?

Birthday cakes, fruit cakes, tiered wedding cakes.

What made you want to attend culinary school despite being told that it couldn’t be a proper “career”?

I didn’t want to look back in my old age and regret that I didn’t do it. I had an epiphany when I visited my grandmother. During one of our talks, I realized that as my grandmother laid here just waiting to die, what regrets did she have? What did she wish she could have done but never got the chance to? 

Where did you study and what were some of your biggest takeaways from that time period?

I studied at the Art Institutes [International Minnesota] in downtown Minneapolis. The biggest takeaways was to learn from your chefs and your peers, and listen to yourself.  

Who were some of your biggest inspirations when you were finding your voice as a pastry chef?

I think I’m still trying to find my voice! Besides Julia Child and Jacques Pépin, there’s Maida Heatter, Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, and Nigella Lawson, to name a few.

Available at Vivir (from left, clockwise): donut, conchas, empanadas, cemita sandwich
Available at Vivir (from left, clockwise): donut, conchas, empanadas, cemita sandwich

Photo by Kevin Kramer

What were a few key lessons you learned while interning at Piccolo and Alma? Did you get to experiment with baking a lot at both of them?

A few key lessons I learned while interning were: listen, question, write everything down, read the recipe, and imagine the steps. Nothing is ever unfixable unless it’s burnt, and when in doubt, throw it out!

I was only at Piccolo for a short time, but I was able to work pastries from the start of making them to plating them. At Alma, during one of my early morning shifts I’d get to work with the pastry chef and help with scaling and mixing. Once I was hired on, I didn’t get to experiment as much, although there were many times where I’d try out recipes and of course bother the pastry team with questions and beg for samples. 

When did you meet Jami and Jose at Lyn 65?

During the Alma renovation in 2016.

 What were your first impressions of both of them?

My first impression of Jami was “Damn, she’s tall.” As for Jose, he was very quiet, soft-spoken, and unassuming. What always struck me was his motto: “Cook from the heart.”

Did the three of you start talking about working together soon after that?

Nope; I was a late comer to the team.  

When did you first start working on the Vivir menu?

Much of the Vivir menu [started as] the kind of thing we’ve always talked about doing and made for family meals. Once we decided Popol Vuh would not be reopening after the COVID-19 shutdown, we thought carefully about the menu we wanted to curate and present. And then, of course, everything changed as soon as the dining-in ban was put in place, so we had to quickly adjust what we could do while not losing the spirit of Vivir.

How would you describe how Vivir compares to Centro, Popol Vuh, and other food spots around the Twin Cities?

Not sure how to answer this because I try not to compare what Vivir is to Centro, Popol Vuh, or other restaurants. I see Vivir as more of an extension of what a Mexican marketplace is. You have the quick eating spots, the grocery store with dry goods and daily essentials, a bakery, a drinking bar, and a café to sit and drink a cup of coffee and people watch.

Are many of the dishes on the savory part of the menu a collaboration between you and Jose? And is everything baked in-house—the cemita rolls, for instance?

Jose takes the lead on much of the savory menu. We’re always discussing the menu and sharing feedback with each other. Yes, the cemitas are baked in house; we try to bake as much as we can in our small kitchen.

What are some of your favorite items and why?

I really like the savory empanadas. They remind me of the first empanadas I had as a child—the crispy, chewy exterior and beef filling. But the best part are the golden raisins inside the filling. Dip the empanada into the salsa, and you get this amalgamation of salty, pops of sweet, crunch of the masa crust, and the kick from the salsa. What’s not to love?

And don’t forget the conchas. Conchas are made from a dough called pan dulce, so it’s a sweet bread similar to a brioche. My favorite way to eat them is to dip them in atole or hot chocolate.  

Anything people aren’t ordering and should? Your atole sounds awesome, for instance, but it isn’t a household name like, say, horchata.

Yes, the mole chicken. If only you could smell the chicken when it’s cooking—I want to eat that every day.

People should definitely try the atole! Sadly, I think people are kind of put off by the texture or consistency, or even just the lack of knowledge of what it is. I always describe the consistency as smoothie-like, but richer tasting than a horchata. And in this cold weather, it’ll heat you up like a cup of hot chocolate—which we also have! And if you get both the hot chocolate and atole and mix them, then you get a hot hot chocolate atole!

How about some items that haven’t landed on the menu yet—things we can look forward to in the months ahead?

We just came up with a secret menu item: a concha torta. Who knows what else could be coming?

Are you bringing your Hmong background into Vivir at all, or is that something we’ll see down the road?

There are some subtle influences…. Perhaps you’ll see some of that in the future.

Have you traveled around Mexico a bit for inspiration and research purposes?

Well, the plan was to travel to Mexico for both inspiration and research in 2020, but COVID-19 blew that plan away. So for now, it’s [all about] reading cookbooks, watching Taco Chronicles, and hounding Jose and our Mexican staff about the dishes they grew up eating.

How would you like to see Vivir evolve in the months ahead, as restrictions are loosed and we return to some level of normalcy?

I’d really like to see people come in and stay a while—to make it that neighborhood café, where you want to stop by and get a quick bite, or pick up a latte and pastry after working out at the gym down the street. 

We’re a café, a market, and a bakery. It should be a place you can come in and have a cup of coffee, a pastry or two, and hang out for a couple of hours studying or doing some work. Or if it’s later in the day, have a glass of wine and maybe order up a torta and yuca fries and just unwind. Or, for our new normal, if you’re in a hurry, order online for a latte to go, add in some donuts or a guava roll, pull up to our parking lot, and we’ll deliver it to you.  

What’s one local restaurant you really miss being able to eat at and why?

Kado no Mise—the best sushi in town. It’s unfettered, thoughtful, simple, intentional, and impactful.  

Do you have any favorites for takeout?

It’s all about what I’m craving at the moment and right now I’m riding a Momo Sushi high, and Dong Yang.

You guys did a great job pivoting from Popol Vuh to Vivir, but many other restaurants haven’t survived the pandemic, or are on the brink of closing. Is there any place that’s closed and you already miss, or one you’re particularly afraid of losing?

There’s too many, many of which were on my list to try and I never got a chance. I definitely miss 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa, Big Daddy’s BBQ, Midori’s Floating World Café, Gandhi Mahal, Butcher & the Boar, Bellecour…. Ahhh, the list goes on and on!

Finally, what’s the one thing everyone should order at Vivir and why?

The breakfast tacos. While they may be unassuming—because who hasn’t had breakfast tacos?—these are made with fresh ground nixtamalized masa that we get made for us by our friends at Nixta. It’s like eating the best of what corn and masa is and was meant to be. And with cottony scrambled eggs, melty cheese, and soft and chewy potatoes wrapped in a warmed tortilla that smells of roasted corn—ingredients that are simple and yet so good together—who wouldn’t want to eat that?