Thom Pham broke a few hearts — including his own — when he announced he’d be closing down his popular Azia restaurant in the heart of Eat Street only to replace it with a glitzy new one, this time in downtown Minneapolis.
While he ensured local foodies that a few Azia favorites would transfer to the new menu, he also promised this new restaurant would bring an Asian flair back downtown — and wouldn’t disappoint his followers.
Just two weeks after opening the doors to his Wondrous Azian Kitchen, Pham seems to be keeping his word. If it wasn’t apparent by the quasi-showgirls sign, it’s certainly clear by the buzz following this new establishment — and the man at the helm.
Pham sat down to talk with us about the transformation, the inspiration and what’s ahead.
It seemed like people were pretty bummed when you announced Azia was closing, mostly due to the issues you were having with the building and landlord. Do you have any plans to relocate that restaurant or stay if it’s brought up to code?
Pham: We’re stilling thinking about it. Because I’ve been in that neighborhood for so long and that’s home to me. I came in there when it was a completely, completely different neighborhood. Pretty rough when we moved in. It was a lot of work, besides financially, but you know, mentally, emotionally, physically. Trust me, I’m as sad as most people are — if not more — especially because it’s got our blood and tears in it.
I love the neighborhood. I would come back in a heartbeat if there’s an opportunity, which there might be. (Pham said they were scheduled to have a meeting with the landlord to see what can be done and where to go from here.) If they bring it up to code, and if they do what they need to do to fix it up. Honestly, I’m just interested in running a restaurant — I don’t have the energy or the manpower to manage someone else’s building.
And that’s basically what I’ve been doing for the last nine years and it’s just exhausting. There’s no way we can operate a restaurant under a condition like that. … If he brings it up to code and the rent is right, we would like to come back.
There are some things at Wondrous that are similar to what you were doing at Azia. But you’ve said you wanted a very different feel, a different vibe.
Pham: Yeah, I’d say about 40 percent of the items are new and 60 percent are certain items that I’m not going to take off the menu. I might get killed. (Laughs) Because you know, people love them so much, when you see people enjoy them so much, there’s really no reason to.
A lot of people aren’t just talking about what’s happening in the kitchen, but the décor at the new place. What was your inspiration?
Pham: You know, this is how I do. This is the only thing I know. I’m 36 now, I’ve been doing it for 22 years. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else and I just love it and I just do what I know and what makes sense to me. As far as the décor goes, a lot of these pieces I had, collected, and kept over the last 12 or 15 years in my garage or my basement. The idea and the vision behind the concept was inspired by the Nankin restaurant, the first Asian restaurant that opened in Minneapolis. There was so much history and so much love there, memories there for a lot of folks — and also it was right here, on this corner.
(Sidenote: As far as the giant, Vegas-style sign outside the new restaurant, Pham said it was based on a sign from Kowloon Chowmein, a restaurant in St. Louis Park that a lovely couple owned from the 1930s until 2000, when Pham bought the place and turned it into Thanh Do. He took that original sign, restored it, replicated it and stored it away, knowing one day he’d be able to use it again. “Everything’s happening perfectly, the timing and the location. It’s a coincidence but it’s meant to be,” he said.)
You’ve been open for about two weeks now. How has the public responded to the new place?
Pham: You know, lot of love, lot of support. Basically all the Azia followers and clientele are here and they love it. And also we have a lot of new folks coming in between the Twins, the concerts and the plays — it’s just a completely different animal for me, especially lunch. We’ve never had to deal with a lunch rush but it’s fun, you know, you have 45 minutes to cook for 150-200 people, it’s fun. It’s really, really fun — I enjoy it very much.
Dim Sum is a brand new thing for me, too, so I have a lot of fun doing that. On Saturday and Sunday brunch, we do Dim Sum from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., so the day and the brunch weekend is all new. I’m used to just making dinner.
Obviously you’re aware of the building’s history with restaurants — and the places that have come and gone. What do you think your success will be with this location?
Pham: I think the timing is right and our concept is new. Not that I wouldn’t do it, but I’d probably have to think twice about it two years ago. Downtown has been changing so much in the past few months and it’s only getting better. We’re very excited. It’s a completely different energy now, especially Hennepin Avenue.
It seems people aren’t only attracted to what you’re doing in your restaurants but also in you as an iconic chef, of sorts. So what’s next for Thom Pham?
Pham: Like I said I’ve been here for 22 years and I love it here — I love the city, I love the mentality, I love the style and I love the fact that we’re a big city but in a small town. … Big enough without being too big and small enough without being too small kind of thing. The connection is just amazing — you walk down the street and you know everyone … it’s just beautiful to see.
In the near future, I would like to do one or two more (restaurants). Have fun with it. I think the next one — in addition to the bar area, we still have another space. We’re going to expand and open as a lounge concept, like the Caterpillar Lounge at Azia, hopefully within the next few months. A little more appeal, a little more nightlife. Listen to some cool music, have a cocktail and hang out with a group of friends.
Sara Boyd is a web producer and columnist at WCCO.COM.