From Vietnam with love

To a Minnesota kid, the closest thing to the rice balls with their flavorful toppings might be a Rice Krispie bar. The Vietnamese treat was a favorite afterschool snack enjoyed by An Nguyen in the village in which she and her siblings (she’s seventh of 14) grew up. And, like all the dishes she’s devised for her restaurant, Rice Paper, the Tamarind Rice Trio is “very personal to me, very emotional. It was important for me to reconstruct the happy moments of my childhood” amid the suffering rampant in the land.

The Tamarind Rice Trio evolved from her recollection of a tamarind tree at school, where vendors gathered to sell rice. Coins were hard to come by. “We had to choose between the toppings they offered. Now,” she indulges in a smile, “we can have all three!”

Good thing. Who’d want to dither between them? Each molded white mound wears its own couture: one, chopped peanuts in a sweet, rich peanut sauce; another, snippets of green onion boasting a refreshing tang; and the third, savory with toasted coconut. That tamarind tree itself is honored in the sweet-sour dipping sauce that centers the plate to flavor abundant morsels of chicken. A nosegay of fresh greens completes the collage — typical of the balanced presentations of Southeast Asia, An recounts. “All the elements come into play in each dish: sweet and sour, crunchy and soft, complexity and texture.”

Yet her fare doesn’t strain to mirror traditional Asian cooking, oh no. And by design. Like An herself, it bears a slimmed-down, stylish identity of its own. Asian fusion, she calls it: “I deconstructed all my dishes, then thought them through: What elements did I like or not like?”

Heavy, greasy food was one of the “nots.” Thus, no wok on duty here. The plate’s chicken, instead, is grilled — not only lighter, but more flavorful — or, in An’s poetic words, adding “another layer to a symphony of flavors.” Fine, whatever. It works so well in the Rice Trio that many of her avid repeat patrons cannot be steered to another dish.

Since arriving in Minneapolis in 1972, An has taught French, opened the city’s first upscale Vietnamese café (now shuttered), Matin, in the Warehouse District, helped launch Lotus Restaurant in Uptown and then embarked on a classy clothing boutique, Avalanche, around the corner.

Revisiting her homeland in the late ’90s to make peace with her earlier memories, she reexamined her own skills and passions and (as the rest of the world could have told her), decided she was a good entrepreneur — especially when it came to the food she loved. So, looking at the “for sale” listings, she came upon her present Linden Hills location. With the help of her artist husband, she set about recreating the serenity of her bamboo-shaded village.

When her family, now settled in Montreal, came to town for the restaurant’s opening, they had this to say about her cooking: “It tastes exactly like Vietnam — but different.” To her, that’s the highest praise, for that’s exactly what she intended. Three years later, it’s still working.

Rice Paper
2726 W. 43rd St.