What if you were banished from civilization and had to choose just 10 local dishes to remember Minnesota by? Heavy Table’s Desert Island Top 10 asks local personalities about the dishes they can’t quit, the soulful stuff they crave and come back to.
THE PERSON: Yia Vang is the proprietor of Union Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant that has appeared at Cook St. Paul and Grand Cafe (among other locations) and has taught cooking classes all over Minneapolis-St. Paul. He’ll be one of five chef-instructors at the Sept. 1-3 edition of this year’s Chef Camp.
I’ve been told that the Twin Cities are like two sisters; Minneapolis is the younger, cooler, and sexy sister who all the guys want to date. When she walks into a room she captures the attention of everyone because of her grace and beauty. While on the other side of the river is St. Paul, the older sister who works hard, and she might not be a “show stopper” but you can always depend on her to get the job done. She probably didn’t go to a fancy four-year university; instead she stayed home and took care of the family business, and now she’s the head of the company.
Well, I want to talk about older-sister St. Paul, who has somehow gotten lost in the shadow of her flashy younger sister. Most of the restaurants on my list are in St. Paul. Let’s start with …
Beef Brisket Wonton Noodles at Hong Kong Noodle
It’s on University Avenue right on the border of Minneapolis and St. Paul (some say it’s Minneapolis but for argument’s sake I say St. Paul). This shop has some of the greatest late-night eats, and my favorites are the Beef Brisket Wonton Noodles — amazingly tender beef with shrimp wontons and egg noodles. Then there’s the Fried Sole with dried chilies, and finally, the House Chicken with ginger scallion sauce. On a cold Minnesota day, walk in and order these three items, and your belly will thank you.
Pho with Assorted Meats at iPho by Saigon
As you keep driving east on University, you’ll find a pho shop called iPho. There are two items that you must try: the pho with assorted meats and the Saigon Sandwich Banh Mi. The broth of the pho is nothing to mess with, It has been passed down through the generations and has won praise from celebrity chefs including Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain.
Coconut Croissants at Trung Nam Bakery
Across the street from iPho there’s an amazing Vietnamese bakery called Trung Nam. Aside from great French baguettes that can be used for banh mi sandwiches, they have the flakiest and most buttery croissants. They have many flavors, but my favorite is the coconut.
The Flintstone Sandwich at Big Daddy’s BBQ
Keep traveling east on University and you’ll hit Big Daddy’s BBQ, a shop run by three great guys who started out with a community microloan. You must try the The Big Daddy Flintstone Sandwich, a beef short rib smoked and sliced, then stacked high on a soft bun.
Mi Bo Kho at Trieu Chau
Keep moving east on University for two blocks and you’ll hit upon Trieu Chau. There’s great pho there, but you’ll want to try the Mi Bo Kho. It’s a deep, rich beef stock with carrots, which add a little sweetness; it’s spiced with a little chili and has large pieces of tender tendons and beef. The broth is where it’s all at. If you have a cold, the Mi Bo Kho will chase it away.
Crispy Pork at Ha Tien
Farther down University is an Asian grocery store called Ha Tien. They have great meats and produce, but what they also have is an incredible deli. My two favorite items are the stir-fried pork intestines with peppers and bamboo and the crispy pork.
Beef Laab at Hmongtown Marketplace
Hmongtown Marketplace is an outdoor (weather permitting) and indoor farmers market in St. Paul. If you go to the indoor food stalls, you must try the beef laab or the roasted beef ribs, and don’t forget your sticky rice.
Steak at Santi’s in Hmong Village
On Johnson Parkway, near Phalen Regional Park, is a large Hmong market called Hmong Village. Imagine you were on the streets of Thailand walking among all the different food stalls and vendors. Well, take that image and put it into a huge old indoor storage unit. There are many vendors, stores, bakeries, and food stalls in Hmong Village, but these are some of my favorites: There’s a shop there called Santi’s, and they make the best steak. It’s called the Crazy Steak, and it comes with wasabi hot sauce. Also, you can go to Mai’s Kitchen and get Stuffed Chicken Wings. Yes, I said “stuffed chicken wings.” Imagine the stuffing for an egg roll stuffed into a deboned chicken wing that is then roasted. You can cool everything down with a Taro Bubble Tea from Blueberry, which does great Thai teas and bubble teas.
Spicy Squid at Dong Yang
Now for this next place you’ll have to completely leave St. Paul and go to Columbia Heights. Right off Central Avenue, there’s a place called Dong Yang. This is a Korean grocery store with a deli in the back. My favorite item to order is the Spicy Squid, and along with the meal you’ll get banchan, which is a whole bunch of little side dishes that come with all the Korean meals.