You might take pho and banh mi for granted the way you do your morning latte, but it wasn’t always that way. Even around here, Vietnamese restaurants needed trailblazers. Once upon a time, The Lotus was that trailblazer.
Tri and Le Tran opened the original Lotus Vietnamese Restaurant in Calhoun Square in Uptown in 1984. As Vietnamese refugee families continued to settle in the Twin Cities, the Trans continued providing jobs to many who needed them, until they had developed their own little franchise system.
Was a family really good at restauranting? They could have their own Lotus. Eventually, there were about a half dozen of these franchises, scattered throughout the metro.
“The mom, the dad, all the kids, we would all work there,” says Yoom Nguyen, who is in the process of opening a brand new Lotus in Uptown, in the old Game Sports Bar space.
But over time, something started to happen. The kids looked around and thought, “This restaurant stuff is too much work. It's too many hours."
“Our friends were all working great jobs in offices," says Yoom. And slowly, but surely, most of the Lotus operations went away.
Except for one: The wee downtown Minneapolis outpost at the edge of Loring Park, also open since 1984 with 30 seats and a bang-up takeout business.
It’s run by Vo Van and Trung Nguyen, Van a sibling of Le Tran.
But it’s also run by their four boys, Yoom, Toom, Hung, and Joey. All four had gone on to other careers: an oral surgeon, a barber shop owner, an importer and exporter of cars. But one fateful night after partying downtown, they decided to land at the Loring restaurant, to cook up a little late-night grub in the kitchen.
“We had the key, it was like three o’ clock in the morning. And our parents were still there. Working.”
They decided right there that they couldn’t let things go on like that.
“We knew we had to keep it going. We couldn’t leave them hanging. Our parents worked so hard. Without that restaurant, our family wouldn’t be what it is,” says Yoom, speaking for himself and his brothers. One by one they all left their other careers to keep the family business afloat.
And within a couple of weeks and for the first time in a long time, there will be a new Lotus. One for a new generation.
Lovers of the Vietnamese eating institution can rest assured that the kids haven’t come along to turn the Lotus into some obnoxious oontz-oontz drink-fest with a lot of cheap booze and bargain basement happy hour food. In fact— surprise— there will be no happy hour at the new Uptown Lotus.
“It’s something I want to change about Uptown," says Yoom, who is old enough to remember the first Uptown Lotus. “I’d like to help bring an identity back to Uptown again.”
Some ways he and the family plan to do that include high-quality scratch food at reasonable prices: “Every hour is happy hour at The Lotus. We’re keeping all of our entrees between $9 and $15. Everything is cooked from scratch and cooked to order.”
Also, he’s hoping to bring a small weekly farmer’s and artist's market into their enormous parking lot, introduce a dog-friendly patio, and even put a fresh juice bar inside the south facing door for tropical-style made-to-order juices like guava and watermelon.
“I’ve just ordered the bike racks, and we’re thinking maybe even a skateboard ramp in the parking lot. Things that bring good energy to the neighborhood.” Yoom says he doesn’t want to "annoy the neighborhood" with a lot of loud music or late night DJs.
“We want to take care of customers, make sure everybody is happy, and put an emphasis on community.”
All of the recipes and techniques from the original Lotus Uptown remain the same, says Yoom. His parents, who will run both kitchens, worked closely with the Trans at that original Calhoun Square Lotus, and learned everything they had to teach.
The new Lotus does have a full bar though, and they’ve been working on some fun specialty cocktails inspired by regions of Vietnam. The "Cafe Da Lat" is a morning eye-opener and an impending nap in one, with Hennessy, Kaluha and Vietnamese coffee.
A few things that will be different include a larger kitchen which allows for more creativity by the chefs. Yoom says that when his mom was recently visiting Vietnam, the family asked that she bring something good to eat back home. What did she do? Befriend a famous street-food vendor who had been making a specialty grilled pork dish for 30 years. Vo reconstructed the dish for the family and that will be on the menu.
Vo is famous for tinkering with whatever is fresh from the farmer’s market that day. Regular customers in the know will ask: “What’s mom cooking today?” They’ll usually get it for around five bucks.
Thai street food-style fried ice cream rolls will be on the dessert menu.
Uptown, I ask you: does this sound like just the thing for the neighborhood you love which has sort of become rudderless and hollow in recent years?
Well, you needn’t wait much longer. The new Lotus Uptown will open by the end of the month. The space is almost finished, with big, black and white murals of Vietnam, and an otherwise light makeover of the space that's changed hands many times over in recent years. They’re just tweaking a few things.
A few things like roughly 300 more tables than they are accustomed to serving in their current space. They recently had a soft opening and invited 90 people. Over 300 people showed up. They handled it with style, grace, and countless egg rolls.
Welcome (back) to the neighborhood, Lotus.
Opens around the end of March
2841 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis