Two thumbs up

Hai Hai, Vietnamese restaurant
Hai Hai, Vietnamese restaurant

Hai Hai means “two two” in Vietnamese, and the title was chosen for this new Northeast restaurant as a salute to the so-named dive bar/strip club that previously occupied its 22nd & University address. I’ll adopt it as my critical assessment: two thumbs up.

Probably the only holdouts to this accolade are residents for blocks around, whose curbs will be forever occupied by the vehicles of foodies. Those foodies’ appetites for chef and co-owner Christina Nguyen’s fresh flavor combos from her homeland, Vietnam, are as bold and bright as the café’s vivid, almost tropical design scheme, favoring eye-popping jolts of turquoise green. (If you’ve visited Nguyen’s first culinary endeavor, Hola Arepa, you know what I mean.)

The dining room — reminiscent of steamy Saigon with ceiling fans and lampshades wrought of fiber-woven hand fans — the lengthy faux-zinc bar and the patio, filled with those little white plastic stools that serve customers in the alleyways of Saigon, provide generous seating. But don’t get your hopes up: They’re usually all taken, with a waiting line (no reservations) snaking halfway to Uptown (well, almost). Worth the wait.

The menu leads off — and you should, too — with snacks ($7–$10). Two or three could compose a light meal, although I defy anyone to halt.

We began with Christina’s spring rolls — two huge logs ready for her palate-igniting dipping sauce. The chef’s twist: bits of fried-till-crunchy eggroll skin within the un-fried, translucent wrappers, plus-sized to accommodate fresh green herbs along with full-flavored bits of pork sausage and spears of pickled jicama and carrots.

Hai Hai dishes
Hai Hai dishes

Next, a quartet of petite water fern cakes composed of steamed rice patties mounded with mung beans, savory ground pork and pork crispies enhanced with scallion oil and fish sauce.

Finally, the fried cream cheese wontons. You’re thinking, “Why? Please, not this tired, accommodate-the-Midwest concoction.” Well, read the fine print. They also incorporate creamy chicken-liver pate (shades of Vietnam’s French occupation?), all set to dip into the accompanying pert and fruity chili sauce.

Next, the vegetable list ($8–$10), from which we summoned the green papaya salad, that Southeast Asian staple, to which the kitchen has added green beans and tiny tomatoes to balance the threads of tart green papaya amply heaped with the customary fish sauce, lime, peanuts and miniscule dried shrimp. They’re nicely ignited with Thai chilies balanced with lush green herbs.

The list continues with yummy sounding East-meets-Midwest dishes like Balinese cauliflower dressed with kale, bean sprouts and coconut cream; braised collards topped with spicy ground pork and chili oil; and Brussels sprouts fried with green chili paste, pork belly and puffed rice. (See what I mean?)

Next up, plates ($9–$16), including Hanoi sticky rice, a dense heap of rice topped with a collage of ground pork, pork floss (shredded threads), coins of densely-textured, boldly flavored Chinese sausage, mung beans, fried shallots, pickled veggies and cucumber in fish sauce. Good but not compelling.

Hanoi Sticky Rice
Hanoi Sticky Rice

Next time, the Balinese chicken thigh and crispy skin accompanied by kale, bean sprouts, jasmine rice, coconut cream and a spicy sambal favoring Thai chili and lime leaf. The usual lettuce wraps also join the list.

I’ll return for the Vietnamese crepe, to stuff with pork belly and shrimp or shiitake mushrooms. Or the shrimp mousse cooked on sugarcane; there’s plenty of it stacked above the bar.

But for now, let’s see the dessert menu ($5.50–$7). Coffee pot de crème, flourless chocolate cake with enhancements, house-made silken tofu in lemongrass-ginger syrup and our choice, Vietnamese che: a tall, frosty glass (which we split to share) layered with Pandan jello, equally slippery lychee, “grass” jello of similar texture, basil seeds, pink tapioca (slippery again), jackfruit, coconut cream and crushed ice. Cool. So are the inventive cocktails, decorated with fronds of herbs and, yes, little paper umbrellas.

The friendly staff is well trained in menu nuances and prepared to answer queries and forward recommendations. All in all, two thumbs up (and more if I had them).

Hai Hai

2121 University Ave. NE