The vintage Honda motorcycle on display, the kind that has flooded the streets of Vietnam for decades, is a sign that Vietnamese restaurant Hue is doing things differently these days.
Hue opened its new Bay View location last week, two doors down from the original restaurant. It opened in 2010, with Vietnamese oil paintings on the walls and with the aim of showcasing Vietnamese cuisine in a more upscale setting.
Now, at 2699 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., owners Cat Tran and Mark Nielsen have lightened up their approach.
Instead of oil paintings on the walls is a mural of a street scene in the city of Hue in central Vietnam, in which scooters drive past shops.
And there’s the 1965 motorcycle itself. (When importing a Honda Super Cub from Vietnam proved too expensive, the owners found one in Boscobel, of all places, and drove it to Bay View in the back of a pickup truck .)
“My mom had her first in 1968,” Tran said. “It was quite amusing for her to see that.” His mother had not seen such a scooter since leaving Vietnam in 1975, when the Vietnam War ended. Tran said his aunt drove his mother’s motorbike into a lake so the North Vietnamese couldn’t grab it.
Oil paintings have not entirely disappeared; look up and you’ll see they’re attached to the ceiling above the bar. It was a way of saying the restaurant was “shifting gears and getting over the old way of doing things,” Nielsen said.
“We take our food and the way we make it very seriously,” he said, but the new Hue’s goal is to be upbeat and fun.
The two-story building (which has three studios on the second floor) was slow to arrive. The couple purchased the property in 2019; it was once the site of Sven’s, a small, low-rise cafe with parking.
The pandemic not only delayed construction until 2021, it delayed the completion of the project. The restaurant opened on May 10.
Hue expanded the footprint of the new building in what was Sven’s car park, increasing its capacity from 49 in the old to around 65 in the new.
Tran and Nielsen said the new restaurant was a bit more kid-friendly. there is a place to park strollers, and it was also important to have changing tables (high chairs and booster seats are out of stock, as is often the case in 2022). One menu item is called The Last Resort – chicken fillets.
The couple said the accommodations were partly because Bay View is home to many young families and partly personal.
“It reflects a change in us being a family now,” Tran said, noting that their son was born five years ago.
The restaurant now has a 25-seat terrace, which officially opens this week. A window that overlooks the patio from the bar rolls up to give the restaurant an airy feel and allows the bar to easily serve customers inside and out.
Customers will find new menu items in the coming months; Hue plans to start offering banh mi in the summer, to begin with. Tran said she never had time to expand the menu, but closing the Wauwatosa location a year ago and consolidating operations will help.
Hue has a much bigger kitchen than the old restaurant, almost three times bigger. It takes over the original site of Sven. “We outgrew the kitchen” at the old location, Tran said.
A larger kitchen accommodates the increased means by which Hue, like many restaurants, gets its food to customers these days.
“The model of operating a restaurant has changed dramatically over the past 10 years,” Nielsen said.
The dining room was often the sole focus of a restaurant, with a kitchen built to serve the dining room. But the kitchen now has to serve many kinds of customers – in the dining room, yes, but also for takeout, delivery, catering, retail and, in the case of Hue, a food truck.
“It’s all of these avenues to get your food to people,” he said.
A third of Hue’s business continues to be carried out, more than before the pandemic. Until April, it was up to half.
Nielsen thinks many of them are new customers in Hue; he suspects those involved in the pandemic first ordered takeout from their usual haunts, then began looking more widely for new foods to order, for a change of pace.
Running in the age of COVID, Nielsen said, “saved us, quite honestly.”
He and Tran expected the postponement to decrease after Hue’s dining hall reopened during the pandemic, but that’s not the case, and restaurant crowds have returned. “He grew up, in a weird way,” Nielsen said.
The new Hue location is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. It is likely to extend weekend hours, but owners will carefully assess the hours. The pandemic has not only affected the demand for postponement; it affected the desire for work-life balance.
“Our staff is made up of people with families and lives. It’s important to them and it’s important to us,” Nielsen said.
Restaurant menu and online ordering can be found at huerestaurants.com; to contact, (414) 294-0483.