Minneapolis is a hotbed of culinary innovation, thanks in part to the work of Christina Nguyen and Birk Grudem (EYG ’14), the creators of Hola Arepa, which specializes in Venezuelan arepas and Latin American small plates. The duo first ran a food truck for about three years before opening the Hola Arepa restaurant, and have since added Southeast Asian restaurant Hai Hai to their plate, for which Ngyuen was nominated for a James Beard award this year.
In the peak of summer, Minneapolis lags a bit in seasonality, Nguyen says, “because we kind of have a late growing season.” This is reflected not only in the menus at Hola Arepa and Hai Hai, but also in Nguyen and Grudem’s life outside the restaurant. Running two restaurants doesn’t leave the pair with a lot of down time, but in the summer they’ll take advantage of Minnesota’s 10,000-plus lakes, swimming and getting out in nature, and on occasion, hosting or attending parties. In this first installment of the new column Party Tricks, the couple shares their Young Gun-approved approaches for acing a dinner party.
The first pro tip: Using some of the restaurant’s core ingredients and familiar flavors as the base, often literally. “If we ever get any time away to go to parties or entertain, sometimes we’ll pilfer negligible amounts of sauces or mise from the restaurants for a quick fix,” Ngyuen says. “Seven-layer dip using our Latin ingredients from Hola Arepa is always a crowd pleaser. Sometimes we’ll grill a protein like steak or chicken thighs and top it with our chimichurri or naam jim (fish sauce & herb) sauce. Or for a shareable vegetable side dish, we’ll cook up some smashed potatoes in our olive and bell pepper sofrito or roast cauliflower in our Balinese marinade of lemongrass, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and coconut oil.”
For larger parties, Grudem adds a bit of ease to beverage preparation by opting for scalable batch cocktails. “For me, having a little bit more experience with cocktails and our bar programs, I could definitely put something together for a batch cocktail type of thing that would be attractive and good,” says Grudem, who also likes to employ current trends he’s seeing behind the bar. “There’s also ways you can take green chartreuse for example, and light it on fire and throw it from glass-to-glass or lighting different garnishes on fire.”
This summer, the pair has made ample use of Aperol and another trendy beverage: White Claw alcoholic seltzer. “You can make Aperol spritzes with sparkling, Aperol and soda, or throw some in a grapefruit White Claw (Claperol), or add some to an ice cold light beer like a Coors Light with a lime (Nascar spritz),” Nguyen said. Capitalizing on the warm weather appeal of both Aperol and spiked seltzer will definitely be a safe bet — for summer parties and beyond.