Cafe Kem and Bubble Me: Two new Asian powerhouses
In the hard-knock restaurant world, you might say that one successful restaurant is a fluke, two's a coincidence, three's a trend, and four...well, four could be considered an empire. So when the Truong family, owners of Jasmine Deli and Jasmine 26, opened Café Kem at 26th and Nicollet—their fourth restaurant, and their third one within as many blocks—they asserted their stature as a Vietnamese restaurant dynasty.
Jasmine Deli, the Truong's first restaurant, is the dutiful older sibling. It feels the least assimilated of the bunch, with its rock-bottom prices, sparse decor, and lack of credit card machine. Jasmine 26 is the prodigal son, with lavish, fashionable tastes. That restaurant's food is more ambitious, though it is sometimes upstaged by the sleek interior and cocktail list. Café Kem is the most youthful of the three, a coffee shop/cafe that's equal parts hip and budget-minded. The space that houses Kem was originally intended as a new location for Jasmine Deli, whose building had been slated for redevelopment. When those plans fell through, the Truongs decided to create a new cafe that could complement the other two restaurants.
The family also owns Jasmine Orchid, on the University of Minnesota campus, so they know something about pleasing the collegiate crowd. Café Kem is open all day and seems designed to appeal to the young and cash-strapped: coffee drinks, bubble tea, frozen yogurt, salads, and sandwiches. The space has a budget-chic look with clean lines and a neutral color palette. Its walls are accented with original art, courtesy of students and alumni of the neighboring Minneapolis College of Art and Design. When the young staffers aren't serving customers, they slip from their posts at the counter to seats behind their MacBook laptops.
Kem means "ice cream," in Vietnamese, though the frozen yogurt the cafe serves draws more from L.A.'s Pinkberry craze. Café Kem offers plain, tart yogurt as well as a host of Asian flavors—green tea, mango, passion fruit, and lychee, for starters—which are made in-house, along with the recently added gelato selection. Sometimes frozen yogurt can taste chalky or synthetic, but every flavor I sampled at Kem was delicious.
In the toppings bar, fresh fruits and candies are stocked alongside items as authentic as grass jelly, which looks rather like black Jell-O and tastes vaguely of dirt. Dried soybeans are nestled nonchalantly among the mandarin orange segments and chocolate chips, offering the sweet-legume pairing commonly found in Asian desserts—it's one that can be a little off-putting if you're not used to it.
The sandwiches—bánh mì, tuna, panini, vegetarian—aren't made with artisan ingredients, but the portions are generous and the prices are cheap. (It's not easy to find a sandwich for $3.75 that didn't come from a gas station or a drive-thru.) The bánh mì is offered in just one variety, a classic cold-cut version that's not available at the Deli.
Overall, Café Kem has the basics covered and offers a few menu flourishes to keep customers curious, including a haystack-styled salad of matchstick-cut apples and dried cranberries, and house-made chips that taste like a cross between fried wonton wrappers, pork rinds, and chili-lime Doritos. You can see the Jasmine family resemblance, yet Kem retains its own unique personality.
NOT TOO FAR AWAY, near the intersection of Lake Street and Girard Avenue, another quick-service Asian eatery opened for business last fall. The tiny shop, called Bubble Me, also has ties to an established restaurateur: Its owner, Bamrung Thammaruksa, is the nephew of Sawatdee founder Supenn Harrison. After spending the last several years helping other people open restaurants, Thammaruksa decided to launch Bubble Me with guidance from his aunt. But first he had to bring her up to speed on the trendy beverage. "Supenn didn't know what bubble tea was," he says.
Harrison is known for introducing Thai food to Minnesotans, having served it at the Minnesota State Fair back in the 1970s before establishing the Sawatdee chain. Today, with Thai food becoming as common as hot dish, Thammaruksa hopes to take it even more mainstream with a fast-food model: Southeast Asian cuisine served Chipotle style.
Thammaruksa says that Bubble Me's rainbow-colored walls represent the chartreuse, fuchsia, and lavender hues of the shop's tea-based drinks. They do a lot to brighten the shop, but overall the interior design is still a work in progress. When the place first opened, some of the furniture in the back lounge was dingy and stained, and the uneven paint job was in dire need of a second coat. But after a few upgrades, the space is looking better—it's cozy and a little dorm-like, with paper lanterns and photographs of Thailand's temples, beaches, and street fare. And for those in need of non-alcoholic after-bar refreshment, Bubble Me makes a bubble tea mojito with fresh mint and lime, and stays open till 3 a.m. on weekends.
Bubble Me doesn't have a kitchen, so most of the food is prepared at Sawatdee and the Bubble Me staff does more warming and assembling than actual cooking. The food is uniformly inexpensive, and varies from unimpressive to delicious. The green curry, for example, hovers on the edge of being overly sweet and doesn't have much depth. One night it was served without any of the promised vegetables, just protein and sauce. On a subsequent visit it arrived with vegetables that appeared to be frozen mixed, right down to the telltale tasteless, cubed carrots. A cold noodle salad was just that: a blah assemblage of buckwheat noodles, green onions, and wasabi-soy sauce. While the pad Thai is value-priced at $5, it could have used a little more punch. Instead of being cooked in oil, Bubble Me's version is steamed, which makes it lighter and healthier, though a little lackluster. It seemed more like the basis of a take-and-make meal than something that was ready to eat. I longed to bring it home for a quick sauté in the wok and a hit of fish sauce, tamarind, and chiles.
Bubble Me serves a basic, tasty bánh mì, as well as a less-common Asian sausage sandwich: a crusty roll generously stuffed with two pork links, plus green onions, cucumber, and cilantro. The course-ground sausage had good flavor, but its visible chunks of fat might repel the squeamish—I bit into one that was nearly the size of a nickel.
My favorite items at Bubble Me were a few of the Sawatdee classics. The Rama Thai consists of the protein of your choice served in a thick, spicy peanut sauce that's balanced by bites of meltingly tender spinach and fresh cilantro—it's one of the best ways to spend $10 in Uptown. I'm also a big fan of the beef jerky, made from tenderloin strips that are marinated and dried to concentrate the flavor. The jerky isn't nearly as tough as the American stuff, but a carryout order would be chewy enough to occupy a barfly for a several-block hop between venues.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.