Thom Pham's Wondrous Azian Kitchen: Will it lift the curse?
"CAN I HAVE the Bartender's Phone Number?" a diner at Thom Pham's Wondrous Azian Kitchen asked her server. The request might have seemed a little gauche, since the woman was sitting right next to her spouse. "I'm sure you'll love it," the server replied, and returned a few minutes later with a flirtatiously named sake-based cocktail.
Such a playful, winking attitude is a signature of Thom Pham's chic hospitality brand, which was best expressed at his most noteworthy restaurant, Azia, until it closed this past summer. Back when Eat Street consisted largely of no-frills ethnic eateries, Azia introduced a slick, downtown vibe—festive cocktails and late-night sushi happy hours combined with DJs and dancing—while still maintaining a welcoming, neighborhood feel.
The eponymous Wondrous Azian Kitchen is now the fourth restaurant venture for the 36-year-old restaurateur. "But I feel like I am 76," Pham jokes, in reference to his grueling seven-days-a-week schedule. In many ways, Pham embodies the allegory of American immigrant success: Born in Vietnam and adopted by a Minneapolis couple at the age of 14, he launched his first restaurant, Thanh Do, in St. Louis Park, at the age of 24.
While Thanh Do has remained successful for more than a decade, and recently moved into larger digs, not all of Pham's ventures have fared so well. His previous foray into downtown Minneapolis, an upscale Asian eatery called Temple, lasted less than two years due to inconsistent food and an obscure, tucked-away address.
But this spring, Pham surprised his fans by announcing that he would close the still-popular Azia and open a new restaurant downtown. He had secured a more prominent location with an enviable Hennepin Avenue marquee—along with a checkered past. Could Pham succeed in real estate that had churned through three other restaurants in just the past few years?
Stepping into Wondrous's Buddha-graced entryway, it's clear that Pham has a better design sense than the space's previous occupants, most recently two sushi restaurants and an Olive Garden. The sprawling, multi-room restaurant and bar are decorated with several striking Asian murals and decorative antiques from Pham's collection, including a few 1930s-era pieces from the Nankin, Minneapolis's storied Chinese restaurant.
Pham has shed the flamboyant silk jackets he wore while working the room at Temple for a more utilitarian white chef's coat, and he can often be spotted in the dining room helping his customers debone a fish, scrawling the day's specials on a chalkboard, or passing out a tray of desserts.
While Azia had a strong pack of Uptown regulars, Wondrous's more varied crowd includes pre-and-post-show diners, Twins fans, and out-of-towners. While some of Azia's fans are lamenting the move downtown—especially having to pay for parking, though the restaurant offers a reasonably priced valet service—many have followed Pham to Wondrous. "It has a completely different energy," Pham says, comparing the restaurant he just opened to the one he just closed. That energy can sometimes feel a little sports bar-like if you're seated near an overhead television set, but the space is vast enough to host cozy twosomes in its lounge as well as large groups in its banquet areas.
As much as I liked the Bartender's Phone Number, cocktails aren't necessarily the restaurant's strong suit. The bar takes a precise approach that seems more suited to the retro cocktail haven down the street (our server mentioned something about drink ingredients being measured by the milliliter, echoing a Bradstreet Craftshouse line). Maybe it was my fault for ordering the Wondrous's Old Fashioned instead of its Singapore Sling, but the drink seemed too precious when served in a tiny, round-bowled stem in lieu of a lowball. It felt too serious and out of place, especially compared to the Wondrous Punch in the Face, a $25 alcoholic fishbowl that's meant to be shared, though Pham says he's seen it ordered by individuals. "It depends what kind of mood you're in," he explains.
The menu at Wondrous draws on recipes from Pham's grandmother and old-school Chinese classics like the Nankin's original egg foo young. There's also an extensive sushi list, several Azia favorites such as the walleye with jalapeños, and a few upscale fusion items revived from Temple.
The kitchen staff includes several Azia vets, which means the cranberry cream cheese wontons are as good as ever: familiar, deep-fried crisps with a tart sting. For more snacking, the menu offers several egg rolls and dumplings, including some nice vegetarian ones stuffed with Japanese squash, as well as a full sushi assortment. Azia's rack of ribs also makes a reprise. They have a rustic, chewy texture—more stick-to-the-ribs versus fall-off-the-bone, with an "Azian Spice" barbecue sauce that Pham gleaned from his grandmother.
The ribs can be ordered in various sizes, including the 10- to 12-pound Slab Almighty, which is a great choice for group dining, as is the Peking duck or whole Arctic char, priced by the pound. When I had the fish, its buttery flesh was perfectly cooked, though our server was a little off the mark in his estimate of how many people it would feed, as two of us barely made a dent in the $45 feast.
Overall, I liked much of what I tried at Wondrous and was disappointed only by a lackluster chow mein (though can a dish that's mostly celery and gravy ever be considered vibrant?), a ho-hum pineapple curry, and a grainy mango crème brulee. But the best and most surprising reason to frequent Wondrous is Pham's new culinary foray: weekend dim sum brunches.
On a recent Saturday when I visited, I was worried to find the restaurant not very busy. There were no round tables with lazy Susans in the center, ringed by extended families, speaking in reassuring Chinese tones—the hallmarks of great dim sum palaces in larger cities' Chinatowns. In fact, Pham was the only Asian I spotted in the entire place. When the first cart rattled up, I feared the waiter would open its shiny metal tins to reveal cold, congealed contents that had been sitting around for hours.
One bite of shrimp shumai, those tasty little tulip-shaped dumplings, proved otherwise. They were the work of pros. Pham's employs a family of experienced dim sum cooks who start making the weekend preparations at 6 in the morning. Fried bean curd skin, another dim sum staple, was a delicate chewing gum in a salty dipping sauce.
Tater tot lovers should try the fried tarot buns, which taste a bit like sweet mashed potatoes with a crisp, oily bark. And don't let the dumplings pass by without trying the chiu chow, which are stuffed with pork, scallions, and nuts. Pham's crew covers many of the classics, though he says he hasn't yet had enough requests to add chicken feet—a seriously authentic dim sum item—to the list. Whatever you do, finish the meal with a fried sesame ball made from glutinous rice flour rolled in sesame seeds and filled with a sweet, creamy lotus bean paste. The one I had was hot from the fryer and so delicious that I had to hold myself back so as not to stuff the whole order into my mouth as if I were playing a game of Chubby Bunny.
With Wondrous already running fairly smoothly, Pham says he'd like to bring Azia back in another form, if he's able to work out the right deal with the Nicollet Avenue building's new landlord. He also owns several other properties in south Minneapolis that he hopes to turn into restaurants when the time is right. Surely his fans will follow.
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