If the ghost of Azia still haunts the corner of 26th and Nicollet in Minneapolis, Mike Tupa isn’t exactly performing an exorcism. Since closing three years ago, the popular nightspot’s 4,800-square-foot space has remained shuttered, and a comeback attempt fell short. But Tupa has taken over the location and plans to open an eerily similar Asian fusion lounge of his own.
“It’s been busy since we acquired the space [in May],” Tupa said, sliding into a high-backed booth feet from where Azia’s main bar once was.
Like its predecessor, Eat Street Buddha Kitchen & Lounge is jumping into the sushi, sake and late-night game. Tupa, a 20-year restaurateur who owns the string of Wild Bill’s Sports Saloons found in the burbs and greater Minnesota, said he isn’t concerned about the obvious comparisons, nor is he intentionally trying to walk in Azia’s footprints.
“I didn’t look at it that way, honestly,” he said. “I liked the fact that that’s what was here before. There’s a goodwill built for [the concept]. I felt the market, knowing what’s down here, that it fit well for Eat Street and would be received well.”
For all their conceptual and culinary similarities (cranberry wontons and oyster wings are on menu), the most conspicuous difference is the whopping, 56-foot booze and raw bar that now fills the LED-flecked front room. This looks to be a sprawling ground zero for cocktails, specialty rolls and oysters.
A mobile DJ booth/sound system built to match Buddha Kitchen’s decor — think an Uptown-ized emperor’s parlor — will slide into the corner and bump beats through the bar and restaurant’s three rooms Thursday through Saturday nights. Tupa has booked local house stalwarts Bryan Gerrard and DJ Jezus Juice for Fridays and Saturdays respectively. “Guests who come at 7 p.m. will have a different experience from guests who come at 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday,” Tupa said.
Fans of Azia’s old Caterpillar Lounge will now find the late-night dance-floor space in the north room, which housed Azia’s main bar, after the dinner rush settles. Tupa plans to use the room along the west wall for regular seating and private events.Buddha Kitchen will be open for happy hour, dinner, late-night and weekend brunch.
As he moves from cowboy-bar baron to sushi sheriff, Tupa has brought in executive chef Grant Halsne, of Stella’s Fish Cafe and Wolfgang Puck’s 20.21, and executive sushi chef Anthony Gambucci. Azia alum Shawn McDonald has also joined the team as sous chef.
Jhade Smith of Tupa’s Hospitality Management Group devised the “farm-to-glass” cocktail list with an on-trend focus on fresh ingredients and juices. Her list is thoughtfully split into “on the rocks” and “served up” sections. House-made cherry maple gastriques (similar to shrubs or drinking vinegars), agave syrups and edamame and sugar snap pea purees share menu space with flavored vodkas that are undeniably popular but less likely to be found in craft-cocktail joints.
“Once I saw chef Grant and chef Tony’s dishes I revamped a lot of things,” Smith said. “The classic cocktails with ingredients and liquors that are kind of more old-school didn’t necessarily fit the concept after I saw the food.”
Still, a few remixed classics, like a watermelon Caipirinha and a fig Old Fashioned, made the cut.
As Tupa and crew saddle up for Buddha Kitchen’s opening day, he said he’s already felt welcome in the neighborhood. For all the speculation about wings and wontons returning to the Eat Street space the last few years, who would have thought it would be a western-themed bar owner to bring ’em back?