Spice, spice baby

Food courts at local Hmong marketplaces give an underrepresented cuisine its due.

Dried spices, nuts and miscellaneous agricultural products on display in the marketplace section of Hmong Village in St. Paul on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014.

Cole Feagler

Dried spices, nuts and miscellaneous agricultural products on display in the marketplace section of Hmong Village in St. Paul on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014.

Though the Twin Cities has a sizable Hmong population, Hmong food is sorely underrepresented. It’s a shame because it’s earthy and unpretentious — it’s never going to be trendy, and that’s its appeal.

Hmong food is comfort food. Its staples are fattening, delectable calorie bombs that leave stomachs whimpering, taste buds scorched and diners satisfied.

At least, they seemed satisfied at both Hmongtown Marketplace and Hmong Village, two St. Paul community hubs complete with vendors hawking colorful clothing, VHS tapes and various knickknacks. Each market has a food court at the back that showcases traditional Hmong dishes, most for $8 or less.

 

Hmongtown Marketplace
217 Como Ave., St. Paul

Hmongtown, a stone’s throw away from the Minnesota State Capitol, is the smaller of the two but offers fresher, tastier dining options. Weave your way through the maze of booths until you stumble upon the food court, where there are eight to 12 pint-sized kitchenettes lining the main building’s back wall. There’s not much of a lunchtime rush, and the clientele is composed mainly of Hmong elders slurping substantial bowls of pho.

Start with the steamed rolls from Coco’s Island Papaya & Deli. Six glutinous noodles are rolled up and stuffed lightly with ground pork and paired with a pungent fish sauce. For those faint of tongue and stomach, the rolls are tasty enough on their own, but the spicy umami-laden sauce sizzles nicely against your lips.

Papaya salad is a staple of both Laotian and Thai cuisines, and every stand at Hmongtown sells a variant of it. Nyob Zoo Kitchen’s is the best. Co-owner Bao Lee explained that the difference between the two variants is the sauce — Lao-style papaya salad is heavy in fish sauce, while Thai-style papaya salad is lightly sauced. Opt for the Lao style. Though it has a noticeable fishy stank, its aroma becomes an afterthought when the papaya hits your mouth. Tossed with tomatoes, green beans and jalapenos, it’s one of the healthiest options at Hmongtown, and it comes in a large container suitable for two meals. It was a treat watching Lee make the dish with a gigantic mortar and pestle, diligently grinding the ingredients together.

Skip the thigh spring roll at Mr. Papaya Kitchen (there was a Mrs. Papaya’s Cafe at Hmong Village, which made me wonder if Mr. Papaya’s cooking made the fictitious couple divorce). While the concept is stellar, the execution is middling. Silver thread noodles are stuffed into a chicken thigh with ground chicken. While the texture of the thigh was intriguing, the filling was watery and under-spiced.

 

Hmong Village
1001 Johnson Parkway, St. Paul

Though hitting up both markets in one day would be an assault on your gut, Hmong Village is just a quick jaunt down the road, nestled in the heart of the East Side in Dayton’s Bluff. The cafeteria is significantly larger than Hmongtown, with 17 vendors dotting the far end of the repurposed warehouse. It’s a popular lunch destination for East Side office workers and Hmong families alike.

Don’t be too enticed by Houaphanh’s purple sticky rice, served with Hmong sausage. It’s exactly the color of Heinz’s hardly-missed purple ketchup, without the obvious artificiality. The rice is tasteless, gloopy and lacking any indication of where the purple hue comes from. The sausage was similarly underwhelming, reminiscent of over-boiled kielbasa. Most Hmong sausage is sour and piquant, so it’s worth giving another vendor’s iteration a try.

Beef intestine at Thada’s Lao Express was an entirely different experience. Upon ordering, chef and proprietor Thada Vang said, “You want to try that?”

Despite her seeming shock, she confided that the beef intestine is a popular item, and it’s easy to see why. For those unfamiliar with Hmong food, intestine seems novel, but it shouldn’t be treated as such. It’s lightly fried and has a soft inside, with a texture and flavor that evoke pâté without the creaminess. This was the highlight of both markets: terribly fattening yet unassumingly delicious — evidence that uncommon dishes don’t equal shock factor.

Before you leave, pick up Hmong pastries from Asian Special Drinks & Deli. It’s stationed at door F, the entrance to the food court, and it is perfect for grabbing a quick snack.

The rice flour balls stand out among the smattering of treats, particularly the coconut offering. Shredded coconut adds a nice crunch when stuffed inside deep-fried rice flour. The pork and egg bun is also worth picking up and makes for a great dinner. The bun’s sweet exterior is a marvelous foil for the savory pork patty and hard-boiled egg. Reheat it when you get home, though — the pork patty in mine was undercooked.

One can hope that many of these vendors will one day open brick-and-mortar restaurants, bringing Hmong food to the community at large. Until that day, Hmongtown Marketplace and Hmong Village are the ideal Saturday afternoon excursion, packing a one-two punch of colossal portions of comfort food at rock-bottom prices.