Saint Paul is incredibly lucky to count not just one, but two food halls packed with stalls of incredible Hmong cuisine.
In the warmer months at Hmongtown Marketplace on Como Avenue, the number of vendors expands into outdoor stalls. Tables are stacked with the abundance of the season: bitter melons, lemongrass, eggplant, Chinese broccoli, mile-long scallions, and so many herbs. Inside, year round, there are eleven food vendors mixed in with other shops, and with an impressive abundance of dishes all just begging for a major feast.
Hmong Village on Johnson Parkway is a sprawling mall with shops filled with clothes, gifts, treats, and food stalls filling the entire area with tempting aromas.
Both locations are packed with small vendors, with special recipes peppered with regional specialties from Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. These dishes are only a beginner’s roadmap, there’s so much to eat and see.
Long, thick sausages are stuffed until the casing stretches with coarse ground pork meat mixed with tangy galangal, zippy ginger, floral Thai basil, snappy-hot Thai chilis and a generous amount of pork fat. Cooked up crisp and sliced, the juices smoosh out into your mouth and light up all those pleasure receptors like a winning pinball machine. Order extra for later. These reheat beautifully alongside some soft scrambled eggs.
2. Stuffed Wings
A wonder of culinary engineering, these thunderously crunchy wings are carefully stuffed, reassembled and fried into a full meal in and of themselves. Inside is a mixture of ground meat, simply seasoned and mixed with bean thread noodles into an unctuous mouthful.
3. Green Papaya Salad
This dish is absolutely built for a sweltering, steamy day in the depths of summer. Some days it’s better to sweat from the inside out. Green papaya is shaved into strips and tossed into a giant, wooden mortar with lime juice, fish sauce, huge handfuls of herbs, tomatoes, and a generous amount of chilis. The entire mixture is pounded into a cacophony of fresh, hot, and funky flavors with a slurpable juice.
4. Purple Rice
This your mouth’s savior when the spice of the chili peppers in other dishes builds to a searing crescendo. The tacky tender texture coats and collapses in your mouth with each chew. It’s a reprieve from all the big flavors, but also its own, very special and filling thing. Hmong kitchens have long been masters of making the most with available ingredients and the rice is a shining example of the beauty and specialness of simplicity mastered.
5. Bubble Tea
It’s not all spice and savory inside these markets. Sip a sweet beverage filled with tapioca balls, like the nab vam, a tri-colored drink with a sweet coconut milk base that’s filled with Willy Wonka colors.
Joy Summers is an award-winning columnist and food writer whose work has appeared in Food Network Magazine, People, City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, Lavender, and Eater. She's been known to take to backcountry roads and plunge into new environments in search of elusive ingredients at their peak. As a passionate storyteller, she strives to connect people with the words that serve them best. She lives in Cathedral Hill with her husband and young children.