Last summer, while eating our way through Little Mekong for a chapter in The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food, we stumbled upon a diminutive Hmong deli in the back of Wung Lee’s market. After passing long rolls of colorful fabric, aisles of groceries, and shelves of prepared snacks (such as rice sausage), we found an assortment of delicious-looking hot food: roast duck, whole fried fish, roast pork, curry, stir-fry, long sausage. We wanted it all, but, having already eaten, we begrudgingly held off.
Earlier this week, we returned with hunger and friends. This time, having worked up an appetite, we did it right, taking home a whole roast duck ($16), an entire fried tilapia ($7), roast pork ($6), sausage and rice ($5), and curry noodles ($5). Insisting that we also sample egg rolls and sesame balls, the owner’s wife through those in too. The verdict? We’d waited way too long. This is very good takeout at a great price.
Wung Lee specializes in Hmong cuisine, which, though unique, includes elements of Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotian, and Thai cooking. (For an excellent primer, we recommend Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America.) Vegetarians be warned: Wung Lee is meat-centric.
The whole roast duck is one of several veggie-less affairs and, in these omnivores’ opinions, it’s damn good on its own. The meat is impressively moist and flavorful without being the least bit greasy. It’s served with a sickly sweet sauce we ended up tossing out, but the bird didn’t suffer for the lack of sauce. Oh yeah, it’s a ton of food that could easily feed a party of six (it comes in an aluminum party platter, for Pete’s sake).
Hmong sausage and rice may sound pedestrian — that is, until you learn that the juicy pork link is made with ginger and chilies, and the rice is purple and sticky. Served with a punchy chili sauce, the combo had us sweating and smiling. The curry noodles were another winner. Although it doesn’t have as much dazzle as the sausage, the dish is deeply satisfying, an excellent meal for a cold, snowy day. Big enough for lunch and dinner, the coconut milk-based red curry is bright with just the right amount of spice. Boiled chicken adds a savory note, while bamboo shoots and noodles provide a pleasant balance of textures. Cilantro, red onion, and green onion round it out, giving the curry pungency and freshness.
We enjoyed the rest of our haul, too, though it wasn’t, perhaps, as notable. The whole fried tilapia was mild and moist, and the roast pork, though a little on the fatty side, was tasty. We’re glad the owner implored us to try the pork egg rolls, impeccably crisp and flavorful. Same goes for the sesame balls stuffed with yellow bean paste, which brilliantly blend savory and sweet, as well as crunchy and chewy.
Like many of the restaurants in Little Mekong, Wung Lee is small place, but it packs a major punch. It’s especially great for omnivores who want to sample an array of hearty, inexpensive Hmong dishes. Now that we’ve eaten (and not just ogled) the food, we’ll definitely be back.
Wung Lee Supermarket Deli
347 University Ave W
St. Paul, MN 55103
HOURS: Everyday, 9am-6pm
OWNER: Wung Lee
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Minimal / No
ENTREE RANGE: $5-16