Five Tastes from Hmongtown in Saint Paul
In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I believe that St. Paul’s Hmongtown Marketplace (217 Como Ave.) is straight-up the best open-air marketplace in the Twin Cities. A few months ago, I received a surprising phone call from a friend, who urged me to visit Hmongtown for the sausages, jelly drinks, and Power Rangers knock-off movies.
Going to Hmongtown is a very grounding experience. As a manifestation of the Hmong community’s resilience in the face of persecution and displacement, it inspires respect and awe. The market’s cavernous warehouses and outdoor stalls are filled to bursting with the material objects of Hmong-American culture, from traditional dress to buffalo-fighting DVDs to — inevitably — the food court.
Here are five highlights from the Hmongtown food court that really grabbed our attention. Though one should always check out the classic dishes, such as papaya salad and Hmong sausage, these are a couple of additional things that would round out the meal. On your next visit, do as the locals do: Order a huge spread and share it with your family and neighbors.
1. Green mango from Mr. Papaya Kitchen ($3)
Despite its simple appearance, this dish fires off its sour, spicy, salty, and bitter notes with the ferocity of Jimi Hendrix. The unripe fruit is crunchy and aromatic, though perhaps confusing to the Western palate. By dipping it into the accompanying spice mix, one gains access to one of the classic flavors of Southeast Asian street food.
2. Cabbage rolls from Coco’s Island ($2)
As mentioned in an earlier article, Hmong cabbage rolls contain many of the same ingredients as Vietnamese spring rolls: glass noodles, ground pork, and thinly sliced vegetables. The steamed cabbage leaves and their pale stuffing may look as bland and unexciting as a Twilight convention, but the flavor and texture are surprisingly compelling. Velvety cabbage and peppery stuffing combine with a modest, but necessary hot sauce to make something great.
3. Sticky banana rice from Coco’s Island ($2)
Though it wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet, this sticky rice was sweet enough to qualify as a dessert, at least in our eyes. The texture of the rice was just right, but it still felt like eating a brick. Definitely share one with someone else or just unleash it on your kids.
4. Vegetable pad thai from Coco’s Island ($3)
Fairly good, especially considering that it was pre-made. Refreshing and inoffensive, but would work as a welcome respite from greasier dishes. Coco’s Island’s “catering” section sells many pre-made dishes that are served cold, if one is seeking such things.
5. Nab vam from 5 Star Deli ($2)
The legendary — and singular — Hmong dessert of jelly, starchy bits, chopped fruit, coconut milk, and syrup never fails to impress, though finishing one can be a bit of a task. (I couldn’t.) After a few bites, the bits of flair all start to taste like the same chewy mass, but it sure is fun to stare at while you try.