Hola Arepa on Spam fried rice, resume padding, and the best bartender in town

Christina Nguyen and Birk Stefan Grudem
Christina Nguyen and Birk Stefan Grudem
Joy Summers

The kids inside the bright turquoise Hola Arepa truck might look fresh-faced, but these two are natural born entrepreneurs. Destined to own their own businesses, Christina Nguyen spent her childhood counting pretend bills and working for her family business, while Birk Stefan Grudem learned the value in repetitive meatball rolling and the dollar value of speed talking.

The two were already successful business owners individually when they met, but it wasn't long before they began plotting a joint venture. What they came up with quickly became one of the most successful, and delicious, food trucks in the Twin Cities. Today we chat with Birk and Christina about Twitter rumors, real estate shuffles and who really is the best bartender in town.

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Christina Nguyen grew up in the Twin Cities, around east St. Paul and in the suburbs. Her early food traditions included some Midwestern classics mixed with her family's Vietnamese mainstays. "I'm Vietnamese, so we had weird food," she says. The weirdest? "Spam fried rice, probably." Nguyen says her mom would pack it in her lunch and the other school kids would wrinkle their noses and recoil.

Say hello to Hola Arepa
Say hello to Hola Arepa
Joy Summers

The entrepreneurial streak ran strong in her family and was passed down to young Christina directly from her mother. Her family opened Tea Garden, serving (among other things) bubble tea to the masses. Eventually, she longed for something more creative and founded the Design Collective.

"I liked the whole idea of bringing all these creative elements together, but running it as a business," she says."I need that balance. The control of running a business, but the creativity of food or design. When I was seven I was playing I-own-a-business while other kinds were playing, like school or house or something."

Birk Stefan Grudem grew up with an Italian mother who was born in Staten Island, but made frequent trips home to Italy. How did she end up in Minnesota? "She met my father," he says with a winning smile and charismatic glint in his eye. Grudem's father was a man of strong Finnish Norwegian stock, so naturally they landed here.

His earliest food memory involves making meatballs with his mother. "She would have these two huge batches of sauce cooking industrial-sized pots. I'd make hundreds of meatballs."

During high school he spent time working as a valet at Pepitos and did a very brief stint as a dishwasher. After graduating he was accepted to the University of Minnesota, but he didn't know what he wanted to do.

Rather than hit the books, he hit the road with four friends in an epic Greyhound bus ride down to Key West. In the Florida Keys, he was able to finagle a job as a bartender. "I totally lied and said, 'I was a bartender at Pepitos in Minnesota. I started when I was 17.'"

In his time down south Grudem gained much experience tending bar and living the flophouse adventures of a young, single guy in Vacationland. At work, he was making a decent amount of cash, living on the cheap. What kind of drinks was he making in this tourist dense setting?  "A lot of rum runners and their take on a Hurricane."

Part of him must have been missing the three foot high snow banks of our fair cities. When he landed back home he found himself working behind the bar at The Blue Plate Company's Longfellow Grill, alongside another local bar man that would go on to make a name of himself: Dan Oskey (now of The Strip Club and Easy & Oskey Bitters).

"Dan and Birk were magic together," Nguyen says.

Time to make the arepas
Time to make the arepas
Joy Summers

Birk readily gives Oskey the lion's share of the credit, "Dan's a better bartender than I am.  He's witty and cheeky. He gives all of the customers his attention, but he's clearly in charge." Customers were drawn to the edge of Minneapolis to enjoy the drink shaking show, but soon a new game opened up down the street: The hallowed Town Talk Diner.

Town Talk was known for shining a brief moment on the local dining scene, dazzling eaters and drinkers with their boozy milkshakes and revolutionary cocktail program. The barmen at the Longfellow Grill took notice, not just of the madman skills of those drink shakers, but the front of house mastery by then owners Tim Niver and Aaron Johnson.

Grudem moved on and eventually found himself taking a break from hospitality to pursue more personally creative ventures. He started his own screen printing business and decided to peddle his screen prints in a little place known as the Design Collective. That's when these two stars crossed paths.

"Birk just started hanging around the Design Collective all the time," says Nguyen. His persistent wooing worked and soon the two were dreaming up ways to go into a business together. They intended to start a bar.

"It was her idea to start the truck," Birk says. "We played around with a lot of different ideas."

Venezuelan-style street food isn't an obvious choice for two Midwesterners of Italian and Vietnamese lineage. "We both really love Latin food. The arepa was something no one else was doing," Nguyen explained. "Plus Midwesterners love corn! It's not a taco, not really a sandwich..."

Check back in tomorrow for the second installment of City Pages' interview with Hola Arepa, in which Nguyen and Grudem discuss Twitter rumors and their upcoming brick-and-mortar location.

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