Reimagining Fusion

Fab fusion: Azia's walleye with jalapeño-basil-cream sauce and chef Tom Pham's dazzling cocktails
Trish Lease
2550 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis

All summer, I have had a running battle with the little boys on my block, because they want to 1) drop rocks on bees; 2) jump off the side of the porch into thorny thistle-patches; 3) jump off garages into traffic; and 4) lie in the middle of the street to "scare cars." I call this reckless, needless, and inexplicable. They call this fun. My neighbors call this boys will be boys. I call this reckless, needless, inexplicable.

I leave the block to go to Azia and have my new favorite cocktail, the Molotov Mojito, which is served on fire. I mean, finally, what man has searched for since civilization began: the opportunity to set fire to one's eyebrows whilst on a date.

I mean, why must others behave in a way that I find inexplicable?

I mean, I don't tell anybody back on the block a thing about this drink, because I love it, and it's clearly reckless, needless, and inexplicable.

This Molotov Mojito ($9) is attractive in every way; it's made with dark rum, fresh lime juice, and mint, and it tastes something like a cola crossed with a chilly silk shawl. A fresh stick of sugar cane sticks out of it, spread with some mixture that catches fire and burns blue.

The blue flame on the dark drink, the high silver ceiling above, the terrazzo floors below, big, sexy, black booths, a clientele so stylish and urban that everyone I know calls the place "Gayzia"--never has Minneapolis looked so San Francisco. And when the new, expanded lounge opens next week, at Azia's official grand opening on August 16, all of south Minneapolis will have our Loring replacement, our in-neighborhood destination bar to bring out-of-towners to, to show them something very homegrown that will knock their socks off. Something with a list of dozens of original house cocktails, dozens of beers, plenty of scotches, and a workhorse of a wine list that hits both the budget needs of the everyday (a bottle of Venegazzu Prosecco for $26) and the prestige needs of scaring your visiting cousin into submission (Viader Cab Franc, $94). Something with enough of a singles scene to be interesting, and enough of a neighborhood/birthday vibe to keep it from having that horrible socks-rigidly-tensed hysteria of a singles scene.

For instance, have you ever thought that all these bubble-teas everywhere really lack a certain kick? Neither had I, until I tried Azia's original Mango Bubble Rum Tea ($9) a milkshake with a velvet hammer. Or rather, a frothy, buttery-looking party filled with two sorts of rum, fresh mango juice, cream, and big old tapioca pearls to chew on. Marvelous! I think you could really knock the socks off your favorite birthday boy with the gift of rummy bubbles.

How's the food? It's far better than what you'll find in most great bars, and, Wednesdays through Saturdays, it's served all day and till 2:00 a.m.! During the rest of the week it's served till 1:00 a.m., which is something of a miracle in and of itself.

I spent forever trying to get a handle on Azia's menu. At first, and second, glance it seems to be a fairly standard Asian fusion restaurant, which would make it like our own Chino Latino, or New York's Ruby Foo's. It is not like that. If you judge Azia like that, you soon find disappointment, because on a fine-dining standard you will find a lot of errors in cooking. A dish called lemongrass monkfish, priced at a fine-dining $19, brings with it a certain amount of expectation, and that expectation is not that you'll get a bowl full of plain bow-tie pasta topped with small chunks of deep-fried fish, with bones, in a deliciously spicy sauce, the whole thing tossed with nearly raw asparagus. A lot of things were like this.

When I first went to Azia, last April, I thought I would give the place time to work out those kinks. Now I have concluded that it never will. Nearly every visit yielded something like that: a salmon tartare that contained a gigantic scrap of skin; a wok-fried nutty chicken that both tasted and looked like a sweet sundae topping; more. Yet after poking into all the far corners of the menu, I did find a number of things that were very good, and terrifically charming in unexpected ways.

For instance, any dish with cranberries is excellent. For all you cream cheese wonton lovers out there, please know that Azia has the preeminent, the Holy Grail, the best in town: Filled with cream cheese, cranberries, and a touch of scallion, they're a bit sweet, a bit savory, utterly creamy, and a bit spicy. They come to you all fat and happy on a white tile and they are, in their fashion, perfect. And I know that once you all get to remembering that these $6 beauties sit between your big night out downtown and your house in south Minneapolis, you will never settle for a slice of pizza again.  

The Spanker Soup and cranberry curry are the other excellent cranberry dishes, and very similar: In both, the sweet and tart of fresh cranberries balances against the sweet, creamy, and forthrightly spicy of a coconut-chili base. When I had the soup recently I got it with deep-fried chunks of crackly tofu, and it came with lots of fresh asparagus: It was everything you like about Thanksgiving--the cranberries, the vegetables, the sweet, the creamy--goosed with a little Sri Cha sauce. I'm already calling this a far better Thanksgiving choice for vegetarians than Tofurkey.

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.

"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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Azia Restaurant - Closed

2550 Nicollet Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55404


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