Given the Twin Cities’ thriving local Hmong population, you owe it to yourself sample some of the culture’s food if you haven’t yet had the opportunity. And few places offer such a quick Hmong-American tour through the food of the diaspora as Asian Deli.
The owners of Asian Deli, Nkajlo and True Vangh, came to the US shortly after the Vietnam War. In the spring of 2010, they opened their restaurant with a nondescript name – Asian Deli – in an equally nondescript strip mall location. The food, however, deserves some description. Like many Hmong-American families, the Vanghs brought with them to the US a fluid culture, food, and language mixed between refugee Hmong from the hills, and the Thai, Lao and Vietnamese of bordering countries. Fittingly, while the Vanghs are Hmong, they’ve hired a pair of Laotian cooks. The food at Asian Deli is a dizzying mix of the familiar and the exotic; Thai dishes fade into Laotian, Hmong, and Vietnamese dishes. There’s an excellent (and generously portioned) Pad Thai ($7). There’s also Pho, a beefy rendition of the popular Vietnamese soup, as well as Kao Poon, a Laotian red coconut curry soup, and Khai Kuam — eggs drained, seasoned, poured back into their shells, and baked.
Dishes sampled during a recent visit were made with fresh, flavorful ingredients, and even though it may make me less of a mystery-food-eating badass to admit it, I was happy to find recognizable meat. On University Avenue, numerous great deals on Southeast Asian dishes come with tendons in the soup, gristle on the vermicelli noodles, and something that only vaguely looks like tripe in the sandwich. At Asian Deli, however, everything was blessedly identifiable and enticing: roasted pork ribs, tender beef in the soup, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves waiting to be opened.
The simple, clean (maybe a tad sterile – but that often comes with being new and cheap) interior is beside the point; if you’re paying $5 for a heaping Papaya Salad or $7 for a custom-spiced bowl of Laotian noodles, you’re there for a deal and some adventure. So while this is something less than candlelit dining or up-market chic – you can head to Vietnamese-French Ngon Bistro if you’re looking for local, grass-fed beef in your pho – Asian Deli is still a dining destination in other respects.
One of the Vangh sons, Andrew, was manning the register during both of our visits, happy to field questions about the food. As Andrew described it, the menu spans Hmong, Laotian, Vietnamese and Thai cooking.
This is not surprising, as the Hmong who now call the Twin Cities home originated in Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Many of the Hmong displaced by the Vietnam War lived (and many still live) in refugee camps in those countries. Around 200,000 of those refugees have made their way to the United States. (See Kao Kalia Yang’s excellent book The Latehomecomer for a personal Hmong-American history.)
Pressed to make a broad generalization about the countries’ various styles of food, Vangh characterized Thai as a bit sweeter, Laotian spicier, and Hmong saltier. To complicate things (for the better), most everything on the menu can be spiced to order.
The crunchy, tart green papaya salad ($5) comes “Thai-style” and “Lao-style” – according to Andrew, the former gets a “lighter, sweeter sauce” while the latter gets a “darker, fishier sauce.” I took the Thai version to-go. Sitting on the Lake Street bridge overlooking the Mississippi, the banks of the river bristled with brown, leafless trees. A cold wind rushed downstream, and my mouth lit up with the lime and crab juice, peppers, and fresh, tart green papaya.
On an earlier visit, the Kao Poon ($6) presented a fresh, Laotian take on a set of familiar flavors. In a way, it’s a Laotian cross between Vietnamese pho and Thai noodles with coconut curry: vermicelli noodles submerged in a gentle, red curry coconut broth, along with shredded pork, bamboo shoots, mint and fresh vegetables. To get the full Laotian effect, ask for a bit of spice from the kitchen and use the table condiments freely.
It’s fresh, fierce, and well worth the relative pocket change it costs. Other foods beckon from the to-go shelf – a house-made sesame-glazed beef jerky sits next to containers of Pa Det, a spicy Laotian sauce ready to pour over just about anything. The aforementioned spiced, baked eggs are also there, along with a sweet dipping sauce. Tempting mystery.
A Hmong-owned restaurant with two Laotian cooks, an oddly generic name, and food from three nations (and one nationless state) – what could be more Minnesotan?
BEST BET: Take advantage of the available Laotian dishes – the Kao Poon or the Beef Larb in particular – they’re big, spicy and wonderfully fresh.
Southeast Asian in Saint Paul
388 Western Ave. N.
Saint Paul, MN 55103
OWNERS: Nkajlo and True Vangh
Sat-Sun: Catering Pick-Up Only
ENTREE RANGE: $3 (Spring Rolls, Chicken Wings), $7 (Pad Thai, Beef Larb), $10 (Tom Yum, Fried Fish with Tomato Sauce)