When you think Vietnamese food in America, it’s often cities like Orange County and Houston that come to mind. With the largest Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American populations concentrated in California and Texas, these areas are among those that have emerged as centers of traditional and experimental Vietnamese fare alike.
But against the odds, the Twin Cities metro has, over the years, also grown into a hub for Vietnamese cuisine (and southeast Asian cuisine writ large) in the greater Midwest. Today, breakfast in St. Paul might look like delicious, buttery croissants with sundry fruity fillings from a Vietnamese deli. For lunch or dinner, especially during the harsh winters, you might opt for a hearty bowl of convalescent noodle soup or congee, laden with thick chunks of meat and aromatics like lemongrass and coriander.
For all that and more, Ai Hue, a small but mighty establishment along St. Paul’s University Avenue, certainly warrants a visit.
The menu here is expansive. While various kinds of pho and banh mi stuffed with all manner of porcine goodness are popular favorites that Ai Hue does supremely well, it pays to be a little adventurous and go beyond the staples, too.
The Bún bò Huế, for example, is no less than a blushing revelation. A specialty of the imperial city of Huế in the central region of Vietnam, Bún bò Huế is a russet, spice-first soup brimming with thick noodles and rich beef bits—just the thing to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside and liberate your sinuses in one fell swoop.
On the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, there’s Bánh tằm bì xíu mại: udon-esque noodles drenched in creamy, slightly sweet coconut milk, offset by fresh herbs like basil and mint, and topped with springy ribbons of pork skin. Add to that a sumptuous pork meatball stuffed with quail egg, and you have yourself a full-bodied, balanced meal that packs a punch.
In case you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to dine in, Ai Hue also offers a wide selection of Vietnamese desserts, baked goods, and refreshing drinks to go, including (but in no way limited to) basil seed elixir floating with grass jelly, and classic Vietnamese iced coffee enriched with dollops of syrupy condensed milk to wake you right up no matter what time of day it is.
You may not find canonical American-Asian foods like cream cheese wontons at Ai Hue. What you should expect instead is just about everything else: modest ambiance, friendly service, and delicious food.
Ai Hue Bakery & Deli
432 University Ave. W., St. Paul