I am perversely drawn to one particular detail in the lavish murals that decorate the walls at North St. Paul’s new Hmong House, and it’s not perhaps the nicest detail to pull out for deeper consideration. The extravagant, expansive murals that offer hand-painted wrap-around views of Indochina in the spring, rendered in a hundred shades of pale and first-rains-of-spring green, make it appear not so much like you are looking down from a great height into the perfect misty valleys of Laos or Thailand, but more like you’re looking down from the left hand of God to heaven as it was made material in southeastern Asia. And heaven is hard to behold, in the mind, in art, anywhere, which is why I think I am so perversely drawn to a particular detail of the mural, off to one corner, where electrical outlets have been incorporated in a sort of trompe l’oeil effect into the pillars of a rough sign and barricade in a bit of brutal, splintered, and realistic prison-edge that makes the yards and yards of heaven lovingly rendered all the more heartbreaking. This is what you want, this is what you get. The heaven of a free lush countryside, the awful mechanics of war and exile.
Of course, I could be projecting a romantic bit of nonsense unsupported by the electrical outlets. But there’s so much going on at Hmong House—visually, culinarily, culturally—that first visits can feel like the first hours at Disneyland. Everywhere you rest your eyes there’s something so extraordinary to see that the mind can’t begin to take it all in. So you have to make sense where you can.
Overhead, for instance, there’s a pillar ringed by 18 candy-colored streamers, each anchored with a glittering cardboard pendant fashioned to display the 18 Hmong clan names. To the west there’s an imposing double portrait of owner Pa See Yang and his wife, Kay, done in the hyperrealist, looking-to-the-future style favored by modern Asian totalitarian dictators—a portrait that becomes even more drenched with unnerving significance by the incessant presence of Pa See Yang himself, who typically pops by every table, at every meal, nodding and friendly, working the room so easily he practically seems to twinkle as he goes. With the picture and the man, the mind reels.
The place is also the size of a high school gym and sometimes the young Hmong ladies will avoid you, feeling shy—so you have to find Yang, who twinkles at you and frowns at them, sending them running, which is a lot to think about too. There is often a musician playing an amplified keyboard, crooning Hmong pop. Once, a dozen young Hmong ladies on a bachelorette outing dropped by and line danced in slow, synchronized lope, as if they were dancing underwater.
We’ve never had a Hmong restaurant like this in the Twin Cities. Hmong are, of course, the people who were chased out of their homeland in mainland China generations ago, eventually settling in the hills of southeast Asia, where they became staunch allies of the West through several wars. The Hmong helped the French fight the Axis powers during World War II, then helped the French and Americans fight Communists in Vietnam. When the Vietnam War was abandoned, the triumphant Communists launched a campaign of genocide against the Hmong, driving many surviving Hmong into Thai refugee camps. Eventually, they were resettled in the lands of their former allies, especially the United States and France.
The 2010 census put the number of Hmong living in Minnesota at more than 66,000, though many argue the number is greater, because of the difficulties in counting a population whose members may not speak English, might distrust government, and move frequently. In any event, with 66,000 people you think we’d have a restaurant or two—but that hasn’t really been the case. Or at least not the sort of restaurant that serves appetizers and entrees, has a liquor license, and takes credit cards, as Hmong House does. The only place that people have been able to buy Hmong food has been at a few grocery store grab-and-go counters and the food courts at the two big Hmong multi-vendor malls: Hmongtown, near the state capitol building in St. Paul, and Hmong Village near Lake Phalen.
Fittingly enough, Hmong House’s owner, Yang, got his start in food at Hmong Village, which he used as a business incubator to try out his fresh-every-day rice noodles for the traditional dish pad se-ew. They were as big a hit as Yang had hoped. He moved here from Atlanta—after a Thai refugee camp, resettlement in Hawaii, high school in Wisconsin, college in Illinois, and stints working in Kansas City and Georgia—to pursue his dream of owning a Hmong restaurant, a career change from prior stints in airlines and hotels.
Yang sold his Hmong Village noodle stand and poured everything he had into this new spot, hiring a young chef, Yia Cheng, and bringing in a cousin to paint the murals. Hmong House opened last summer, and it’s a must-visit for anyone living in the Twin Cities. Though not necessarily on a Saturday night, as most of the restaurant’s business is in fact Hmong weddings, for which it closes down nearly every Saturday (just call ahead to make sure it’s open to the public).
When you do go, start with an order of papaya salad, made in the Thai way with lots of cherry tomatoes and often with other fresh vegetables like peppery eggplant. Add an order of pad se-ew—slippery, gossamer rice noodles as tender as custard, made with your choice of fried squares of tofu or thin stir-fried slices of meat—and you’re off to a great start in understanding Hmong food, the earthy, garden-driven beauty of it, the hearty simplicity and joy of it.
For any old hand with Asian restaurants, one of the issues with Hmong food is that you immediately try to identify what’s Thai and what’s Chinese—don’t do that. After a few years of eating Hmong, my best advice is to think about it the way you would Alsatian food. Hmong has an adjacency—some similarities and some differences—to the other southeast Asian cuisines in the same way that Alsatian food has many similarities, many overlaps, and some differences from French food.
One of the truly, uniquely Hmong dishes is the Mother’s Herb Whole Chicken Soup, a vast tureen of soup traditionally given to Hmong mothers after the birth of a child. The broth for the soup is cloudy, plain, and pure, just chickeny and good. There are skin-on segments of chicken in every bowl, the plain broth and boiled chicken deepened with dark tangles of bitter herb. Purely Hmong too is the celebration dish of sweet pork and eggs, here called Five-Spice Sweet Braised Pork, an insanely rich concoction of well-lacquered pork belly chunks, hard-boiled eggs, brown sugar, five spice powder, and scallions, all of which come together in a hot pot. Read on the palate as the richest, most luxurious dish ever concocted—it’s like a chocolate pot de crème, for an entrée. It’s made to share.
For solo dining, another uniquely Hmong dish is the excellent larrb salad, here made with cooked chicken torn into tiny pieces and tossed with lots of fresh cilantro, mint, and basil. It’s less lemongrass and chili soaked than most of the other local versions, and I like it better, as it has a kitchen-garden freshness and forthrightness that makes it elemental. Another Hmong dish is the changbang stir-fry—a tumble of meat and chili peppers that reminds a restaurant hound of Sichuan food, with graceful herbal notes.
Hmong barbecue, as popularized at the food courts, has become something of a local cult sensation. There are a few excellent versions on Hmong House’s menu, not to be missed by any local carnivore. First there are the thin-sliced, crisp-grilled beef short ribs, which are beefy and deep-tasting. Then there’s the tangy, plump Hmong sausage, made with lots of lemongrass, an undeniable triumph of plump, salty lemon richness. Still, it’s Yang’s own invention called PaTxhim slow-cooked ribs, perhaps inspired from his years in Kansas City and then Georgia, that I think is the restaurant’s strongest dish. The chef takes a rack of pork ribs, steams them, glazes then roasts them, and serves the ribs with candied walnuts and everything you need to make lettuce wraps, including big lettuce leaves, herbs, and finely chopped vegetables. On the side, the hot sauce the staff only calls Hmong pepper is a finely chopped combination of chili, cilantro, garlic, fish sauce, sugar, and magic that brings heat, light, and unity in a way that only the greatest condiments can.
I requested take-home containers for my Hmong pepper on my last visit, so I could look at this at home without distraction. I saw minutely cut chili and garlic, finely minced cilantro, a wealth of lavish detail that’s all but impossible to appreciate in the moment. Still, as delectable as the Hmong pepper was at home, I prefer it in its natural environment, one of a hundred details, any of which can overwhelm you, and any of which can open you to a world of lavish, unimaginable joy.
2112 11th Ave. N., North St. Paul, 651-492-0451