Here's how Vietnam got a jucy lucy restaurant

The crew at Circle Cafe, from left to right: Ngô Văn Rin, Huỳnh Thị Minh Anh, Huỳnh Thị Mỹ Lệ, and Huỳnh Thị Bến

The crew at Circle Cafe, from left to right: Ngô Văn Rin, Huỳnh Thị Minh Anh, Huỳnh Thị Mỹ Lệ, and Huỳnh Thị Bến Provided

When Huynh Thi Minh Anh opened the Circle Cafe around 2014, the menu was devoted to food from her native Vietnam: phở, vermicelli salad, bánh mì.

After a few months in business inside the ancient port city of Hoi An, Huynh had an idea: Let’s see if the touristy clientele would enjoy a cheeseburger. For burger pointers, she turned to her husband Jeff Hoganson, who grew up in the Twin Cities suburbs before moving to Vietnam in 2013. Hoganson steered her toward Minnesota’s greatest, ooziest culinary export.

“I told her she should try doing a jucy lucy,” he remembers. “With that, Circle evolved into being a burger joint.”

Circle’s jucy lucys (spelled out, somewhat controversially, as “juicy” to avoid translation mishaps) draw inspiration from the ones made by Hoganson's pals, Pat McDonough and Jeremy Woerner, the owners of Twin Cities lucy chain Blue Door Pub. The Blue Cheese Garlic directly honors Blue Door, while the Kimchi Jong-un is a nod to North Korea's food-loving Supreme Leader. The Bacon Avocado is the most popular, Hoganson reports: “No big inspiration other than people really love those avocados and bacon, seemed like a natural combo.”

We tracked down one recent Circle customer with an attuned Minnesota palate.

“The burger was really good, cheese was melted in the middle and toppings were super fresh -- meat was cooked just right too,” says tourist John McCauley from south Minneapolis. “I might be biased since it was the first hamburger I’d had in at least two months, but I thought it was a true-to-form jucy lucy.”

(A couple of Minnesotans once declared it better than Matt's Bar, Hoganson says with a chuckle.)

Customers mostly come from Europe and Australia, Hoganson says, though Huynh has recorded guests from over 60 countries. Determined to ride out COVID-19 in a sane country, one Wisconsinite customer became a weekly regular.

“These are folks 'trapped' over here because of the virus,” Hoganson says. “Trapped by choice, as they decided to stay here instead of going home where the virus risk was greater.”

A small collection of locals are regulars, he says, and a growing Southeast Asian middle class means more foot traffic from regional tourists seeking molten cores of cheese. If you’ve taken your kids to Quang in Minneapolis or Hoa Bien in St. Paul, you get the idea.

“I think people are more curious about foods they typically wouldn't eat,” Hoganson says. “Especially young adults and parents who want to expose their children to different foods and cultures.”