How Ann Ahmed Is Paving a New Path for Southeast Asian Food in the Twin Cities

Ann Ahmed, like many of her elementary school classmates, ate lunches prepared 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, who was in the first grade at the time, still 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. Ahmed, then a younger man, would spend hours in the storeroom with her grandmother and have dinner at her grandmother’s home. She loved cooking with her grandmother and was inspired to open a restaurant after witnessing her hospitality.

Ahmed, the elder, was against the idea of Ann building a career in restaurants and instead instructed Ann to pursue formal education. But deep down, Ahmed’s mother always knew. Ahmed had already written a business proposal for her future while in middle school. A 10-page menu was included. “a lot of curry.”Ahmed began her college education at the University of California San Diego. There, she was studying to be a teacher. Ahmed ran a catering service with friends. She also cooked from her garage.

On a chance encounter during an evening walk in Brooklyn Park, Ahmed’s mother saw the sign. Ann was immediately called by Ahmed’s mother. “I just remember her saying, ‘Hey, there’s a restaurant for sale, would you like it?’”Ahmed dropped everything, even though commencement was nearing, and flew straight to Minneapolis to get things moving.

The beginning days of being restaurateur

Lemongrass was just 25 years old when Ahmed opened it. The early days were full of unknowns and risk. 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. Ahmed was able to get the money, but she struggled to plan.

“I used to keep money in a shoebox,”Ahmed will always be remembered. “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. Ahmed called Lemongrass Thai restaurant, and she served dishes she believed were familiar to her neighbors, due to the lack of diversity in the area. Residents assumed it was a Chinese restaurant right away, and they continued to do this for many years after its establishment. “Three to four years after opening, I still had people come in wanting Kung Pao Chicken and Chow Mein,”She said.

Ahmed has improved since Lemongrass. Her cooking style has changed as well, as people become more open-minded and more adventurous. Lat14, her second restaurant which she opened 13 year later, featured dishes that delved deeper into lesser-known Southeast Asian classics like Jaew Bong (a fried rice with red chie paste and pork floss), jackfruit curry, and Lumpia (a Filipino staple pork egg roll).

Lat14 was also a crucial moment when her family started to accept that both restaurants are a career. “Asian-culture, you know — it’s all about needing to have an office job to feel successful,”Ahmed says. She remembers it at first. “my parents never really talked about or bragged about me.”Soon, Lat14 changed things. Ahmed began to share her story with her mother, and soon, her mother followed suit.

“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”

Check out 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 with blonde woods and bright, bold accents.

Her desire is that the restaurant has a wide appeal and appeal. “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 said. “Asian food does not need to be cheap.”

It’s 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. A whole fried fish is also available.

Khâluna is slated to open in late October at 4000 Lyndale Avenue South.

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