Reimagining Fusion

Cranberry curries and molotov mojitos: A whole new kind of Minnesota nice

The walleye, too, is great. Order it and you get an enormous, 12-ounce fillet of terrifically fresh fish, the whole piece deep-fried till it's crisp and greaseless, and then covered with a cartoonishly green jalapeño-basil-cream sauce. This makes it look funny, but taste great, as the sauce, which is really like a high-octane tartar sauce, offers just enough spice and acid to showcase the light, slightly grassy qualities of Minnesota's favorite perch. At $15 for a serving that feeds two, I know that this is the walleye feed for the next generation.

And so I put it to you: Deep-fried cheese, Thanksgiving-esque hot dishes, walleye feeds; does this sound like standard Asian fusion to you? Or does it sound more deeply, deeply familiar than that? Who is looking back at us from this mirror?

And so we enter into a fascinating story. Azia is owned by Mike Stebnitz and Tom Pham, and as I learned in a phone interview for this review, Tom Pham carries with him a modern Minnesotan story that could easily be turned into a film. Pham, it turns out, is the son of an American GI and a Vietnamese woman, and grew up on a small island in southern Vietnam where the anti-American sentiment was extreme.

Fab fusion: Azia's walleye with jalapeño-basil-cream sauce and chef Tom Pham's dazzling cocktails
Trish Lease
Fab fusion: Azia's walleye with jalapeño-basil-cream sauce and chef Tom Pham's dazzling cocktails

"At 14 I still wasn't allowed to go to school, I wasn't allowed to walk on the street with other people, nothing," he says. "By the time I was 14 I was like, 'This isn't working for me.' If my dad was American, why don't I try America?"

In stepped Lutheran Social Services. The next thing you know, Tom is part of a blue-eyed, blond family in south Minneapolis, the Johnsons. "The most wonderful family you can imagine. The next thing you know, we're at my grandparents for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I'm like, 'I hate cranberry sauce.' Now, I love it, because I found some better things to do with cranberries. But when I was first here, learning English, going to Southwest [High School] taking six hours to translate my homework with a Vietnamese-English dictionary, it seemed strange. I grew up on an island where everything was sea and sand, and now here I was, part of the Johnson family, seeing snow for the first time. Now my grandparents come in all the time, my ninetysomething grandfather, I make cranberry curry for him extra mild, and he loves it."

And so the international circle of Minneapolis Lutheran do-gooding and Vietnamese flair once again improves all our lives! Before it was improving our lives here in south Minneapolis it was improving the lives of the good people of St. Louis Park, where Pham ran his first restaurant, the modest neighborhood strip-mall spot ThanhDo, with several of his Johnson siblings. ThanhDo is one of those neighborhood beloveds that readers periodically write to me about. And I've visited it over the years, and never quite got a handle on that place either; some things are good, some things I thought were just plain, and it was difficult to imagine recommending it to the entire metro.

Now that I've figured out Pham's gift though, namely adding Vietnamese style and grace to Minnesotan beloveds, I feel like I have a much better grasp on how to navigate Azia's--and ThanhDo's--menu. Anything that's bar food, like calamari ($8), or backyard barbecue, like the little shish-kabobs of orange tenderloin beef satay ($6), is great. Clean flavors, clear presentation, very forthright and lovable, with spice. Anything that seems like it should be on a super-fancy menu is not quite so hot.

And of course, all of the cocktails, which are 29-year-old Pham's personal passion, are lovely. Even the ones that aren't aflame. Did I mention that one has the excellent name of a Hello Punch? I just think of so very, very many people for whom a Hello Punch would be appropriate. After which you could drown your sorrows in a Pacific Island Celebration, the only drink I have ever heard of which is served in two--two!--young coconuts.

And while I can see how a lot of you out there will now be concluding that no one needs to eat deep-fried cranberry wontons and flotillas of walleye while nursing two young coconuts; indeed, that this is a chain of behavior that is certainly needless, reckless, and inexplicable, to you all I say it is that Minnesotans will be Minnesotans, even if we've grown up in Vietnam.

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