On Friday afternoon MSPD and I headed over to the fairly new Hmong Village in St. Paul. Very similar to other Hmong markets such as the Hmong Marketplace and the market which houses Destiny Cafe, this insanely large indoor Hmong flea market has it all including a very large selection of food stands serving everything from chicken feet to papaya salad. While I am still new to the dishes the Hmong have to offer, I have to admit that it’s one of my top three ethnic foods to eat and I absolutely love diving in and trying items which would generally turn the stomachs of just about anyone else.
Not knowing any better I entered the indoor flea market from what I consider to be the main entrance. I found myself immersed in what felt like an endless maze of shops and people. Not generally one to get disoriented I have to admit that I found myself wandering deeper and deeper into the market following only my nose in an attempt to locate the food vendors. First my nose led me to a large indoor farmers market with a variety of fresh vegetables and herbs. As I exited this area on the opposite end from which I entered I knew I was close–I could almost feel the smell of meat cooking in the air. Eventually I arrived at what MSPD had described to me in an e-mail a few hours before: a “T” intersection connecting Avenue Shops with Avenue Food.
The food vendors lined an entire wall of the place in one long and beautiful line. I immediately noticed that Hmong Village was far brighter and cleaner than my experience at Hmong Marketplace and that the food, while generally the same, was also just a little different. Following some of the suggestions laid out in the Heavy Table piece on Hmong Village I set out looking for Fue’s papaya salad. According to the Heavy Table the heat level was off the charts:
The woman who made ours with a giant mortar and pestle, grinding the peppers before preparing the dish, said ours had “medium” heat. This is disputable, and for Minnesota standards, a flat-out untruth. The “hot” version must be an absolute fireball, yet with all the heat this papaya salad did not lose its flavor. Hot, yes, but the burst of flavors from loads of sweet shaved papaya, garlic, and Thai eggplant still emerged.
I, of course, asked that mine be made as hot as they could possibly make it. While I was snapping photos MSPD and I chatted with the owners who were amazed that I was so willing to just dive into something I never tried before. “But how will you know if you like it?” I was asked by one young woman behind the counter as another mixed the peppers, tomatoes, fish sauce and papaya. After stating that I generally like everything except black olives and pig uterus I found myself holding a very large styrofoam cup of the salad which smelled strongly of fish sauce but looked like any other cold salad you may see on a hot summer day in July. However this salad made a cold winter day a hot one with only two fork fulls. While the Heavy Table’s suggestion that it’s an “absolute fireball” was pure conjecture on their part, I have to admit that it was definitely hot and I later left more than half of it for later not just because I was full but because I was mildly concerned that the heat would continue building to a point of discomfort.
Being that I was on a very tight budget (the Budget Nazi permitted only $10 total though this was more than enough to stuff my face into oblivion) I slowly perused the remaining options looking to get the most food for my money. At one end of the line of vendors I found a very inexpensive Bahn Mi for $2.00. While this was nothing even close to the Vietnamese-style sandwich I had at World Street Kitchen, it was still a good size and filled with goodies. There were 5 or 6 pre-wrapped sandwiches on the counter but after asking for extra jalapenos on mine I received a freshly made sandwich wrapped and ready for my enjoyment. My sole complaint about the sandwich was that the bread was a little too crispy for me and may have even been a bit stale. The rest however, especially with the fresh jalapenos, was very tasty and well worth the $2 spent.
My final purchase was splitting three Hmong sausages with MSPD for $5. I only had $2.00 left in my pocket but he begrudgingly forked over 50 cents to tide me over. While not as good as some other Hmong sausage I have had before, most notably just a bit further down the line, it was still tasty and the variety of flavors as you move through the pieces of meat never ceases to amaze me. Kielbasa was always a holiday staple in my home growing up and I may just have to make a small alteration to accommodate these sausages instead–they’re simply that good.
Overall I loved Hmong Village in St. Paul. If you ever have a chance to get over there I highly recommend that you do so. It’s a wonderful experience for those people who are open-minded about their food and are willing to blindly order off menus or by pointing at cooked animal carcasses hanging in heated display cases. While the Heavy Table article suggests that you need a guide and someone who speaks Hmong, MSPD and I found such a case was not at all required and no one should feel threatened by the environment or the people. Everyone I spoke with was able to converse in English fluently and were not only helpful but extremely friendly and curious as to our interest in the food of their culture. I seriously cannot wait to go back again and soon.
Have you ever eaten at Hmong Village? If so what vendors do you like best and what are your favorite food items to order? How do you think the food at Hmong Village compares with what you will find at the Hmong Marketplace or restaurants like Destiny Cafe? Whatever you have to say about Hmong Village or Hmong foods in general go ahead and comment on as I’d love to hear what you have to say.
1001 Johnson Pkwy
St. Paul, MN 55106
Sunday – Saturday: 11 AM – 7 PM
See all the pictures from Hmong Village on Flickr here.