Like many of her elementary school peers, Ann Ahmed ate lunches packed from home. But where others brought brown bags filled with the usual suspects — peanut butter and jelly or turkey sandwiches, maybe an apple — Ahmed’s lunch was more unique. “Many kids that came around my time; their parents thought they’d starve at school, so they packed lunches, and the lunches were not the same as everyone else’s,” says Ahmed.
Without hesitation, Ahmed’s mom would pack her a whole fried fish with sautéed tomato sauce, not unlike paa mak len, a traditional Laotian dish made with local fish from the garden pond. “It freaked people out,” Ahmed, then in first-grade, remembers. So she ate that lunch — and countless others — in the confines of her after-school bus.
Today, a variation of paa mak len (deep-fried red snapper with red curry coconut sauce and herbs) will appear on the menu of her latest restaurant Khâluna — slated to open later imminently this fall. It’s the first dish of its kind to appear in Ahmed’s growing restaurant empire, which counts Lemongrass in Brooklyn Park, and more recently, Lat14 in Golden Valley.
That dish is also more than 30 years in the making; it’s Ahmed’s capstone, of sorts, that marks the central role food played in her childhood. After emigrating from Laos to Minneapolis to join relatives, Ahmed’s mother worked the line at a local restaurant. The younger Ahmed would spend days at the storeroom and evenings with her grandmother, whose home became the hub for elaborate dinners for her eight children. Cooking alongside her at the kitchen and observing her grandmother's flair for hospitality seeded her desire to open a restaurant.
But the elder Ahmed always resisted the idea of building a career in restaurants, instead instructing Ann to get a formal education. But deep down, Ahmed’s mother always knew. In middle school, Ahmed had already written a business plan for her future: a 10-page menu that featured “a lot of curry.” Then, in college, at the University of California San Diego, where Ahmed was studying to eventually become a teacher, she ran a catering business with friends, cooking out of her garage.
On a chance encounter during an evening walk in Brooklyn Park, Ahmed’s mother saw the sign. Immediately, she called Ann. “I just remember her saying, ‘Hey, there’s a restaurant for sale, would you like it?’” Despite commencement nearing that weekend, Ahmed dropped everything and immediately flew to Minneapolis to set things in motion.
On the early days of being a restaurateur
Ahmed was barely 25 when she opened Lemongrass, and the early days were fraught with risk and unknowns. For a restaurant that she hadn’t seen before, in the “middle of nowhere,” and in a predominantly white neighborhood, Ahmed put up the only collateral she had — a home that she had recently purchased — and approached the bank with no business plan or vision for the future. She did get the money but struggled with how to budget.
“I used to keep money in a shoebox,” Ahmed remembers. “So as you imagine, I had no sense of opening costs and how much it cost to train someone.”
Furthermore, there was no menu; no recipes that were formally documented, as Ahmed’s mother never wrote recipes down. Music came for a boombox; family came in to help when they could; service varied on her mother’s mood. Given the lack of diversity in the neighborhood, Ahmed called Lemongrass a Thai restaurant and served dishes that she thought were familiar to their residents. To no surprise, residents assumed it was a Chinese restaurant, and continued to do so long after its opening. “Three to four years after opening, I still had people come in wanting Kung Pao Chicken and Chow Mein,” she says.
Since Lemongrass, Ahmed has wizened up; her culinary style has evolved, too, in parallel as diners become more open-minded, more adventurous. Dishes at her second restaurant, Lat14, which she opened 13 years later, dug deeper into lesser-known Southeast Asian staples, including the likes of Jaew Bong, a fried rice made with red chie paste, pork floss and shallots; jackfruit curry; and Lumpia, a staple Filipino pork egg roll.
Lat14 also marked a pivotal moment during which her family began to fully accept that both restaurants were a career. “Asian-culture, you know — it’s all about needing to have an office job to feel successful,” Ahmed says. At first, she remembers, “my parents never really talked about or bragged about me.” Soon, Lat14 changed the dialogue, and the more Ahmed shared her story, the more her mother did, too.
On her latest restaurant
Ahmed’s goal for Khâluna is to build a transportive culinary experience that would allow guests to feel they are elsewhere. Early interiors point to a style that’s evocative of resorts in Northern Thailand and Chiang Mai (The Raya was a major inspiration, Ahmed says). Think white stucco vibes, blonde woods and bright, blue accents.
More broadly, her desire is for the restaurant to build as far-reaching an appeal for everyone. “I want to connect with people at all different levels,” Ahmed says. There’s a backspace with a shop and a to-go deli case with ingredients and meal kits for some of the dishes. There’s also a cooking studio where she plans to show how to make those dishes.
She fully recognizes the opportunity for Khâluna’s food to speak for itself; in her own way, Ahmed is trying to be a steward in dispelling the misconception that Southeast Asian food plays a secondary role to Asian dishes and cuisines that are more mainstream. “The way we vocalize and share our voices and wanting to be heard — I’m not changing that. But I’m in this new group of people who want to have a voice now,” she says. “Asian food does not need to be cheap.”
Quite the opposite. Ahead of the restaurant’s opening, Ahmed shared a few of her creations that will be making it to the menu. They include Naem Paa, a crispy rice salad with fish, which she elevates with smoked fish and includes fresh herbs and vegetables from her cousin’s garden; rainbow rice, a lesser-known Thai staple, inspired by her trips to the Northern region; pineapple noodles, a deceptively simple, clean dish of rice noodles, fresh pineapple, warm coconut milk, jumbo shrimp, dried fish flakes, and chile lime dressing. And, of course, a whole fried fish.
Khâluna is slated to open in late October at 4000 Lyndale Avenue South.