Over the summer, Bar Brava — the Twin Cities’ first and only natural wine bar — announced it was sunsetting its full-service menu, and scaling back to a “Brava-Lite” model of wine and snacks, plus a series of weekend pop-ups. But as of December 9, the wine bar will have a new chef in the kitchen: Eric Pham, of Khue’s Kitchen.
Pham has hosted two pop-ups at Bar Brava in the last month — they went so well, he says, that he and owner Dan Rice decided to make the arrangement long-term. “Dan was actually, like, cleaning dishes,” says Pham. “He was cooking, prepping, developing the wine list. I was like, ‘There’s so much on your plate. Let me take over the menu and let you focus.’” Rice agreed, so Pham packed up his ghost kitchen in Northeast Minneapolis and moved across the river to Bar Brava. A grand opening is planned for this weekend.
Pham says Rice has been pushing him to dive deeper into his knowledge of Vietnamese home cooking. Pham’s mother, Khue Pham, is a chef at Eat Street icon Quang — his grandmother, Lung Tran, opened the restaurant in 1989. Khue has been helping him build the Bar Brava menu, expanding from his original offerings of crispy five-spice tofu and caramelized pork ribs to warming traditional dishes like lion’s head meatballs, or banh mi xiu mai. Quang used to serve it, in fact, but removed it from the menu because it was too labor-intensive. Pham grew up eating it for breakfast. “There’s something about meatballs in, like, an Asian marinara sauce,” says Pham. “You get a warm banh mi and break it apart and dip it in. It’s exactly what you want in the wintertime.”
He’s also adding a roast pork ssam. Typically, says Pham, this is a celebratory dish, and it often comes in the form of a whole roast pig. He’s making it with pork belly, though — marinating the meat for 48 hours, roasting it until the skin crackles, and serving it with lettuce wraps, sweet fish sauce, vinaigrette, noodles, and an abundance of fresh herbs. “It’s wild — I didn’t think I’d be able to cook this food yet,” says Pham. (Khue’s Kitchen debuted just five months ago.) “But this is just the beginning. There are so many things now that I can delve into: salads, cold starters, more desserts.”
Pham says he and Rice are looking at a long-term arrangement, ideally for a few years. “ I think people like the pairing, they see that it’s unique,” says Pham. “There’s not a lot of places that pair wine and Vietnamese food together really well.” But he wants to keep it approachable and affordable, in the same way that Quang has for more than 30 years.
For the time being, dinner service at Bar Brava will run Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m through 10 p.m. Pham says he hopes to add a Sunday brunch in the future — keep an eye out for banh xeo, fried rice, and hot honey fried chicken and waffles coming down the pike.