When An Nguyen opened Minneapolis’ Rice Paper restaurant in 2002, she wanted it to express what she imagined peace felt like. Nguyen was 20 when she fled Vietnam with her parents in 1970. “No one my age had ever known peace until the war ended,” she says, adding that her parents and grandparents lived through war, too. “It is our history; thousands of years of war with occupations by different countries.”
With a degree from the University of Minnesota, Nguyen taught at Wayzata High School until the mid-1970s when a friend suggested they open an Asian restaurant. The timing coincided with the tug Nguyen had been feeling for her homeland — especially its food. Though she couldn’t cook like her future partner, Nguyen knew she could learn to run a business.
Matin, their venture in the Warehouse District, brought “lots of excitement” and even though opening day was scary, it was also lucky according to Nguyen: she met her future husband, whose art studio was in the building next door, that afternoon. Remembering his patience she laughs, saying the day was so unorganized he waited hours for his lunch.
The restaurant’s success prompted her partner’s sister and brother-in-law to ask Nguyen to help them open Lotus in Uptown. Nguyen sold her interest in Matin, agreeing to manage their new restaurant. After a few years, though, she needed a break. Retail space opened up nearby and she took a chance on something “more fun and less time-consuming” and developed Avalanche, a women’s specialty clothing store.
“I loved it,” she says. The dollar was strong, traveling overseas to buy fashion-forward clothes was fun, and there was a freedom she hadn’t felt working in restaurants. “To sit with customers, chit-chat and become friends before we settle down to business is what I liked,” she says. She also enjoyed giving women the confidence to try things they might not have without her encouragement.
After 14 years selling clothes, Nguyen felt unsettled. “I wasn’t able to live in the present moment and it took away some quality of life,” she says of the fashion world, where she was always thinking six to eight months ahead. Nearing 40, she decided to visit Vietnam for the first time since her family left after the war’s end.
When she lived in Vietnam travel wasn’t allowed, which Nguyen says made it “really profound to go back and see Vietnam with a new filter.” She found Saigon exciting “and the food out of this world.” She’s returned many times and after a few visits, decided to study feng shui to be “more imbued in the culture of my country.” She sold her retail business to concentrate on the ancient art of balancing the energy of a space.
But she often thought of another restaurant — this time, one close to home. “I fantasized about having a tiny restaurant in Linden Hills whenever I walked through the area with my husband, but brushed it off as impossible,” she says. Checking real estate ads online one day, she read, “small business for sale in Linden Hills.”
“My heart froze,” she says. The next day, she bought the space and ended her seven year hiatus to create Rice Paper.
Nguyen put a lot of feeling and thought into transforming the space in Linden Hills and asked her artist husband to surround the restaurant with bamboo. “The bamboo village was like an oasis in my country. Because of the war, we needed to know who was a friend,” she says. “The villages were surrounded by bamboo groves. You knew everyone. You knew who was a stranger. I wanted Rice Paper to be a place where I knew people.”
Lanterns light the restaurant because the countryside of Vietnam had no electricity. Depending on where she sits, the lighting represents the different phases of the moon and holds special meaning for Nguyen.
She says, “Before when I thought about Vietnam it was always with sadness. Now I want it to be about happiness, good memories.” Every dish she’s created is a connection to her homeland and represents a happy time in her childhood.
The dish Roadside Tofu “wafts with smoky flavor,” celebrating a time when she was extremely poor. “Our culture is about street food,” she explains. “As a kid, even with just a penny, you could get a snack at night from a vendor selling grilled tofu. I wanted to commemorate that.”
Nguyen admits owning a restaurant is “extremely taxing” but says Rice Paper makes her feel alive. “It offers me a lot of comfort that was missing in my life before and makes me feel more whole.”
“I’ve learned to celebrate happy moments,” she says, “because I have a lot of things to celebrate that I may not have had the wisdom to see before.” Like the restaurant that is an expression of who she is now: a woman who knows the feeling of peace.
Andrea Langworthy lives and writes in Rosemount.