Minneapolis and St. Paul are much more diverse than we imagined. When we visited a couple of years ago, we learned that Minneapolis has the largest Somali population in the US and the second largest Ethiopian and Vietnamese populations. It turns out that the Hmong population here is the largest outside Laos! The 2010 census reported 66,000 ethnic Hmong in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. There’s even a business/cultural district in St. Paul called “Little Mekong” located between Mackubin and Galtier streets along University Avenue. This district, of course, is named for the Mekong River that runs from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, connecting the cultures of Southeast Asia.
The Hmong people arrived in the area mostly as refugees. Many came during the late 1970s and early 1980s, but there are new waves arriving from time to time. There is a Hmong Cultural Center near the main concentration of shops. Then, there are two main Hmong markets: Hmong Village (located on Johnson Street) and Hmongtown Marketplace. We read up on each and decided to visit the latter. We’ll have to save the delights of Hmong Village for another trip. Located just north of “Little Mekong” on Como Avenue, Hmongtown Marketplace is the perfect place to explore this side of St. Paul, and satisfy your cravings for good Hmong food, shop for traditional clothing, grab some Hmong videos and load up on fresh fruits and veggies! We spent an afternoon at Hmongtown Marketplace doing just that.
Keep an eye out for these dishes!
Not to be outdone by Andrew Zimmern on his visit to St. Paul, we had to explore what Hmongtown had to EAT. Hmong curry noodles are similar to those found in Cambodia or Thailand. The balance of sweetness and spiciness of the Hmong version is, for us, just right. Papaya Salad is made as you watch with a giant mortar and pestle. Spice levels are authentic for Southeast Asia, so ask for medium unless you’re feeling bold. Juicy, meaty Hmong sausage was delicious accompanied by purple sticky rice. Don’t forget to try some of that famous tri-color Nab Vam (Nava) drink too. There’s one whole stall dedicated to every bubble tea flavor you can think of. Rose milk tea is highly recommended (by me)! We went home with a package of spring rolls and a bunch of unidentified colorful snacks. Prices in the food court area were all very reasonable, but you’ll be better off bringing cash. Some vendors are cash only.
The Farmer’s Market section is filled with all sorts of fresh fruits and veggies. We recognized some from past travels in Southeast Asia, while we had no idea what many other items were. Vendors speak varying levels of English, but are more than willing to try and help or explain. We got a huge piece of fresh ginger at a great price, plus some rambutans and lychees. If you know your herbs, you’re likely to be able to find whatever Southeast Asian variety you’re looking for here. They’re all tied up in bundles, and some seemed to be grouped together, ready for use in preparing specific dishes.
Traditional Clothing, Medicine, Housewares and More
Hmongtown Marketplace has many stalls dedicated to traditional Hmong clothing items: hats, skirts, shirts, etc. The embroidery is amazing. Other vendors specialize in medicines, very interesting to browse.
The Hmong Cultural Center, located nearby, has an extensive collection of Hmong literature, research and materials. You can walk in any time they’re open and learn something of Hmong history, culture and the US experience.