As the home to the largest concentration of Hmong people outside of Southeast Asia, it only makes sense that the Twin Cities would boast the epicenter of Hmong cultural life in America.
Enter Hmong Village, a sprawling indoor market nestled in the heart of St. Paul’s Eastside neighborhood. Here, more than 250 vendors selling everything from clothes to beauty products co-exist with chiropractors, health clinics, law firms, and everything in between.
“It’s iconic,” says Yia Vang, the chef-owner at the Union Hmong Kitchen pop-up in St. Paul and the upcoming restaurant Vinai in Minneapolis. “The moment you step in, it’s like you’re in a bazaar,” he says.
The Hmong American chef is here to guide Hmong American photographer Pao Houa Her through the maze that is Hmong Village. Past the stalls displaying toys making beeping noises, you’ll find a fresh produce marketplace in the center, punctuated by the sounds of people talking, making deals, and haggling with each other.
But we’re here for the long corridor located on the northwest side — where the food vendors lie.
“As you get closer, the smell of the food hits you hard,” says Vang. “It smells like grandma’s house. You have a mix of all these hot curries, grilled and fried food, roasted meats, some of the funk from papaya salads and the fish sauce. You’re bound to bump into old friends that you haven’t seen in years. Or cousins and family, because everyone goes there.”
Here are Vang’s favorite dishes to get at the Hmong American community’s landmark food court.
“You have to get the crazy steak at Santi’s,” Vang declares. “That’s just the jam. It’s a husband-and-wife duo, the husband is Laotian, the wife is Hmong. They take an inexpensive cut of meat, slice it thin (almost butterflied), and grill it medium-rare. They serve it with sticky rice and two kinds of sauce: wasabi sauce and pepper paste sauce. They put it in this little to-go box and I just go at it.”
Lucky Food Express (formerly Lonchen)
Vang particularly loves the pork from this vendor. “They have the crispiest pork here,” he says. “They roast it, skin-on, and they crisp the skin like a chicharron almost, before chopping it into little pieces. You can get it small, medium, or large, and it’s just delicious. It’s one of Hmong Village’s best crispy pork dishes. Lucky’s took over the food stall Lonchen was in, and when they did, they bought the recipe from them. So, it’s a different name, but the same technique, and same pork.”
“One of my favorite dishes here are the cow intestines skewers that are grilled at Mai’s,” Vang says. “They roast the intestines in the oven and throw them on the grill for a little bit. The skewers have this fatty crispy texture and the chew of the intestines, ahh, I just love it. They’ll cut it up and chop it into small pieces, and sometimes, I’ll get a little thing of it to snack on in the car when I drive. I eat it like popcorn basically.” He also loves ordering Lao sausage balls. “They’re stuffed with rice and noodles called sai krok that are hung and fermented a bit. There’s a funk, a tang to them. They’re like boudin without the blood. Also, get their papaya salad.”
“At Lucki’s, they kind of have a twist on a meat-and-three combo,” Vang explains. “What I like to get is one container of what we call sweet meat — braised pork belly with cinnamon, soy, all spice, and brown sugar — alongside another container of braised beef tendon, another one of braised mustard greens, and it all comes with a side of sticky rice. It makes everything in the world that’s wrong right in that moment.”
Bonus: Stuffed Chicken Wings
You may notice stuffed chicken wings on many a menu at the Hmong Village food court. “They debone the wings, take the meat and the bones out, and stuff it with egg roll fillings. So, imagine an egg roll, but instead of an egg roll wrapper, you have a chicken wing! It’s the most delicious thing in the world.” Vang likes to grab his from Mai’s Kitchen.
One Last Pro Tip:
If you can, avoid going to Hmong Village on holidays and weekends. “You won’t find a parking spot, and the lot is huge,” says Vang.
Hmong Village Shopping Center is open Monday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. 1001 Johnson Parkway, St. Paul, Minn., 55106.
Read Yia Vang’s personal essay about growing up as a Hmong American immigrant, and how he’s learned to embrace his Hmong culture here.