Ngon Bistro Interior
Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Most people know Ngon Bistro as one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the country, a farm-to-table spot full of classics (world class pho broth!) and surprises (red curry rabbit pot stickers!) offered beside one of the best wine lists in town. Insiders know that chef and co-owner Hai Truong is also a devoted vinyl collector, and is often found spinning some very excellent discs during dinner.
But, did you know that Ray Charles played there? Yes, the real Ray Charles. Here's the deal: Once, back in the day, there used to be an after-hours jazz club above Ngon. Hai Truong heard about the Ray Charles show, from, of all people, a restaurant inspector who was at the gig. "It was an after-hours musicians place," Truong told me. "If anyone played in town, they'd play here after the show, late night." This would have been in the heyday of old Rondo, the African-American neighborhood St. Paul lost to I-94 development. (Life in the old neighborhood was well captured in 1993's HBO series Laurel Avenue. Note to Netflix or Amazon: rerelease?) But wait, there's more—Hai Truong thinks he can bring back this bit of St. Paul culture, today lost. "There’s nothing left," Truong told me, "I'm trying to figure out where the stage used to be. But it's a big space, 2,500 square feet, and I think we can get it to be a jazz club again. Not straight jazz, but something for local musicians. A small, intimate setting, where you can see music and have a glass of wine from a small bar, in a 1920s art nouveau design space."
Cool. Next step? Pop-ups, of course! They'll be at Ngon, with local chefs. "We'll do special music, cocktails, and throw all the the money into a fund for upstairs," Truong told me. So here's all your homework, folks who want a jazz club back up above Ngon Bistro: Watch Ngon's Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for details; St. Paul peeps, talk to your St. Paul City Council member; and everyone go and ask your old school friends and neighbors if they ever saw a show in that speakeasy of bygone days—then tell me about it, I'm dying to know.
If all goes well, we will finally have the answer to the question: What do Ray Charles and a great bowl of pho have in common? And the answer will be a street corner in St. Paul.
Ngon Bistro; 799 University Ave., Saint Paul; 651-222-3301