Photo by Katherine Harris
There’s lots of booming life on Eat Street these days. While it used to be mostly first-generation ethnic eateries, there has been a recent influx of local chef-driven locations (Icehouse, Eat Street Social), not to mention stores like Glam Doll Donuts, a Vertical Endeavors climbing facility, and more condos than you could shake a banh mi at. The vibe on Eat Street is shifting, which makes it curious that an old dame is making a curtain call.
Thom Pham’s Azia opened on the corner of Nicollet and 26th in 2003, bringing the first dose of real sass to the neighborhood. His Asian-fusion cuisine, high-octane cocktails, and backroom dance club quickly garnered a loyal following and national attention. By the time the place closed in 2010, the space was rundown and Pham had shifted his gaze to downtown. His promises to reopen as the newly refreshed Azia Market never happened, though it had been almost completely renovated before everything truly went dark again. The site sat expectantly vacant until it was picked up by Michael Tupa, who set the wheels in motion once more.
The space is now home to Eat Street Buddha Kitchen. The new owners have been quick to point out that they are not Azia, and I can see that they want to stand on their own name, but it’s problematic. First of all, they opened an Asian-fusion restaurant in the same space that held the Cities’ first Asian-fusion restaurant. Secondly, they used much of the décor that had already been in place for the new Azia—I’d been peeking in the windows at that orange bar for what seemed like eons before the new owners bought it. And thirdly, they’ve put cranberry wontons on the menu. If ever there was a dish that repped Azia, it was those cranberry wontons.
So here’s my thing: Just own it. Call it an homage or a reimagining, call it fusion-future, but pay heed to the past. When it closed, it was more about Pham’s world than Azia that stopped working in the space, so maybe now is the right time to bring it back. The food isn’t breaking through barriers like they’re doing over at Umami, but for the most part it is fun and interesting and delivers a good time.
Since the bar is now the main focus of the room, it helps that cocktails are good. They might not be as complex as their surrounding neighbors, but they’re a step in the right direction: The Sweet Pea made with Prairie organic cucumber vodka has a refreshing and bright sugar snap pea puree.
The sushi creations I’ve tried have been generous and fun, without being too convoluted to eat. The crispy spicy tuna had the fish sitting atop a little fried cake of rice and a zippy sauce. There’s a nice selection of creative sashimi—the salmon nirvana maybe overreached with a flavor mash-up of crispy garlic, chilies, ponzu, and truffle oil, but the yellowtail was allowed to shine with a treatment of jalapeños and cilantro.
Dishes from the wok include a solid holy basil beef tenderloin and a great Key West Panang, which had little crunchy fried shrimp on curried ramen with a perfectly poached egg. The flavors mingled and played together until the last slurp. The bigger entrée plates were hit or miss—the pepper-crusted bigeye just got lost in a mess of pepper, wasabi potato madness, and cloying blueberry ponzu sauce, but the scallops were nicely seared with a spicy togarashi beurre blanc that gave a lift to the shaved Brussels sprouts.
It seems like this is a good place to meet up and share some plates and drinks. The staff were all friendly and knew their stuff. However, I probably won’t order the cranberry wontons, because I think you can appreciate the past while still plowing forward. 2550 Nicollet Ave. S., Mpls., 612-886-2468, eatstreetbuddha.com