Photos by Katherine Harris
Hmong Village St. Paul
Each stall has its own personality and style of cooking. The price points make it easy to sample your way through the hall.
Summer is the perfect time to take a drive to what’s arguably the Twin Cities’ most exotic culinary destination: the Hmong Village. Particularly on weekends, this sprawling complex on St. Paul’s East Side is a bustling gathering spot for members of our region’s large and vibrant Southeast Asian community. Reminiscent of outdoor markets in Cambodia and Vietnam, it has scores of stalls that peddle pretty much anything a transplant might want or need, from foreign language DVDs to religious items to all manner of cooking implements. There’s also a huge farmers’ market of sorts with not only the freshest fruits and vegetables you’ll find in these parts (I think the local Hmong farmers are keeping the best for their compatriots), but also items you’ve likely never seen, such as mangosteen, pomelo, and longan.
What makes this spot a foodie paradise is a collection of more than two dozen open kitchens that collectively offer a mind-boggling assortment of the freshest, most unique, and authentic Golden Triangle fare imaginable. Whether it’s made-to- order stir-fries, chicken feet done three ways, or straightforward fried spring rolls, you’ll likely find it in profusion here. And when prices are typically very affordable, so what if a few dishes don’t ring the bell.
Hmong Village is a great warm-weather outing because the raw ingredients are at their freshest and many of the items—as well as the produce in the market—make for perfect picnic food.
I must confess, when planning my initial visit, I was concerned it might be difficult to figure out what some things were and that language barriers might make it challenging to get answers. Happily, that wasn’t a problem. The vast majority of vendors are blessedly multilingual, and they tend to be outgoing and helpful. It’s important to note that most transactions are in cash, so come prepared. Another helpful hint: Most food stalls have caddies stocked with sauces and condiments—you’re free to take one to your table from wherever you order food.
With the great menu overlap and variety, it would be a near-lifelong project to determine the best of the best at Hmong Village. Nonetheless, we sally forth.
My favorite item is the grilled skewered meatballs. The best have a light sweet and tangy glaze and a texture that isn’t excessively compact, like the version served at The Kitchenette.
Another standout is the deep-fried pork belly offered at numerous places. I particularly enjoyed the sampling from Her Kitchen. It was blissfully crisp on the outside, cushioned by a layer of tasty fat, and lean and meaty in the middle.
Soups are available in all shapes and sizes and typically come with a platter of bean sprouts, chili peppers, cilantro, mint, and green onion. Mai’s Kitchen’s version proved a more than filling delight. My order included a rich stock brimming with shrimp, meatballs, and braised pork belly, rounded out with wonderful homemade rice noodles.
Perhaps the most pervasive item I spotted was larb. This traditional room-temp Laotian salad contains raw or flash-seared meat that is either chopped or sliced, seasoned and spooned onto a lettuce leaf, and then eaten as a wrap. It’s a perfect picnic choice. I discovered that most of the larb offered at the market contains tripe. Since that’s not a personal favorite, I spent some time looking for a good alternative, which I discovered at Nang Kwak’s. The cheerful kitchen here makes it to order, and I ended up with a fabulous composition that centered around strips of rosy pink beef. At $10, it was the most expensive item I sampled, but well worth it.
Another ubiquitous and custom-made preparation is papaya salad. As you walk up and down the aisles, it’s impossible to miss the slicing, pounding, and mixing of this traditional favorite. Although I was patiently asked how I preferred mine, I wasn’t sufficiently well versed to really know how to answer. As a result, in one case I ended up with way too much fish sauce and in another with too much heat. So while this is another perfect picnic option, you may or may not be pleased with your choices.
The vast majority of stalls also offer pork sausage that gets hacked into bite-size pieces and packaged with dipping sauce. Some of the charcuterie is reportedly homemade, but I was told most comes from the same commercial meatpacking plant. My sampling didn’t impress—the casing was somewhat chewy and the stuffing was a bit undercooked for my liking.
While there’s a huge array of spring rolls, two main types are on display. One is the familiar rice paper–wrapped version filled with a combination of shrimp, pork, rice noodles, and veggies. The other is a Hmong version that’s reminiscent of the rice noodle wraps served as dim sum. It’s more like a roulade in which the gelatinous noodles are pinwheeled around a sprinkling of ground meat and chopped scallion. I wasn’t wild about it. Ditto for a softball-size bao filled with Chinese sausage, ground pork, mushrooms, and a hardboiled egg. The thick, doughy exterior was overwhelming.
And if none of what I’ve described strikes your fancy, there’s much, much more from which to chose: fish, fried chicken, BBQ ribs, curries, bubble tea, dessert fritters, candies—the list goes on. My advice is to pack up some wine and a blanket, head to the village and indulge your whims, then drive to a grassy spot and enjoy your feast. 1001 Johnson Pkwy., St. Paul, 651-771-7886