Finding great Hmong food and restaurants in St. Paul

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As an Asian, I am always enthusiastic about Asian food. Living in Minneapolis for two years, I saw many Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants around the metro area, but I had not seen or even heard of any Hmong restaurant. I know there is a large Hmong population in Twin Cities. So, I wondered, what do Hmong people eat and where do they eat?

From Google search results and Yelp recommendations, I chose Hmong Village for my first try on Hmong food. On October 2, I drove to 1001 Johnson Parkway in north St Paul. After I parked my car, I doubted that I got the right address because I didn’t see anything except a huge factory warehouse. I walked in and thought maybe I should ask someone where the Hmong restaurant was. Then a grocery market appeared.

At least 20 restaurants have hundreds of choices for customers. The menus and pictures of food are provided in front, so for new customers like me, it’s pretty easy to figure out what food each stall has and what their prices are. I walked around and found that basically Hmong food here was divided into two categories: noodles and rice with meals. People call the noodles phở, like the Vietnamese phở. They are soup noodles with meat like beef, chicken, or pork. I didn’t try phở this time because I had Vietnamese-style phở many times before and also, the purple rice caught my eye and aroused my curiosity. I walked to Houaphanh and ordered a chicken wing meal, which has the purple rice and chicken wings.

The restaurant I tried for the chicken wings meal.

Chicken wings and purple rice

I had never seen the purple rice before. The owner of Houaphanh told me that the purple rice is grown naturally as purple and it’s really sticky. I tried it and it indeed was sticky. It was even stickier than glutinous rice. Because of its stickiness, I had to chew each bite for several times, like chewing gum. And it’s not sweet, unfortunately. The chicken wings looked scary because they were really red and I expected they were spicy. Actually, they were just like American style fried wings without spicy flavor at all. They were deep-fried and got both the crunchy texture and fresh chicken taste.

The chicken wings meal is a popular course, since I saw many people had the same. For me, trying the popular dishes is always the best way to start exploring a new cuisine. From my observations, I noticed a group of teenagers waiting in line for a deli store. Without hesitation, I joined in the line and tried a representative Hmong salad called papaya noodle salad.

Many customers come here either for boba tea or noodle salad. I ordered both: a lychee boba tea and papaya noodle salad. Boba tea is very similar to Taiwanese-style bubble tea that has the small chewy tapioca balls and milk tea with different fruit flavors. The only difference is Hmong-style boba tea does not mix milk with fruit juices. It’s still tasty, for sure.

The owner of Kad’s Deli store is mixing papaya noodle salad for me.

I talked to the cook, who is also the owner of Kad’s Deli, about cooking process of papaya noodle salad while she was mixing one for me. She told me that this salad has two styles: Lao and Thai. She made a sample of Lao-style for me to see the differences between the two, since I had ordered Thai-style. As far as I tasted, Lao style noodle had more flavors in it, such as pimiento, which makes the salad more spicy and flavor-oriented than the taste of the noodle itself. On the other hand, Thai-style noodle salad had many fruits and vegetables, such as papaya, cucumber, peanuts, cabbage and so on, mixing with vinegar, and a little bit of pepper. It tasted really fresh and except for the sourness, every ingredient in this salad kept its original taste. Light spices kept its flavor refreshing.

Thai style papaya noodle salad.

The prices are surprising reasonable. Here’s how much I spent for today’s Hmong food adventure: boba tea: $2, papaya noodle salad: $5, and chicken wings meal: $8. And all these are totally enough for two adults. Another good thing about this place is that you don’t need to pay tax or tips when you pay for your meal. But you’d better use cash. Some stores accept cash only.

If I had free time to go back to Hmong Village, I definitely would — not only for the amazing food and variety of restaurants, but also so I could visit stores that sell traditional Hmong clothing, medicine, etc. Walking in Hmong Village is more like a cultural experience to see, hear, smell and eat in a Hmong world.