I know what my all but non-existent Minnesota readership is thinking: finally, someone’s gotten around to reviewing this Twin Cities mainstay! But you should really curb that cruel sarcastic impulse and bear in mind that I did not have a blog till just over 18 months ago and only got around to reviewing restaurants regularly this summer. So, here it is, only seven years or so too late: your review of the food court at Hmongtown Marketplace. Any week now you can expect a detailed breakdown of a Jucy Lucy at Matt’s.
I am embarrassed to say that despite having lived in the general area for more than seven years now I’ve not really made too much of an attempt to explore the Hmong food scene. In my defense this is largely because we happened very early on Hmongtown Marketplace in St. Paul and didn’t really feel the need to branch out.
The Hmong are, by far, the largest Asian community in Minnesota (see data from the 2010 census here) and are a fairly visible minority in the Twin Cities, especially in St. Paul where there are a number of Hmong farmers’ markets among a larger number of Hmong businesses, especially along the University Avenue corridor. Hmong food, however, doesn’t have quite the visibility in the mainstream Twin Cities food scene of some other Asian cuisines with smaller supporting populations; no single establishment rises to the name-recognition/acclaim of, say, Quang (Vietnamese), On’s Kitchen (Thai), or Grand Szechuan. This may well be at least partly for economic reasons. As per the 2010 census data linked above, the per capita income for Minnesota’s Hmong population is $11,316. This is, by far, the lowest of the Asian populations measured, half that of the next lowest group (the Vietnamese) and less than a third of the highest (Indians). So while the population is large it may not be able to sustain restaurants above the very affordable category. Which is the category in which the food court at the Hmongtown Marketplace falls.
Located at the intersection of Como and Marion in St. Paul, Hmongtown Marketplace is a large complex consisting of an outdoor farmers’ market and various large warehouse style buildings, some of which contain more produce vendors as well as purveyors of various other goods aimed at a predominantly Hmong clientele. You can get a lot of produce that you won’t see anywhere else (other than at other Hmong markets), and at very low prices; and you can also shop to your heart’s content for DVDs, clothes etc. One of the buildings, the first on the left as you walk from the chaotic parking lot towards the market, also houses a food court (in the back of the building past the random shops). There are six major food vendors there, most of whom, for the most part, serve overlapping menus, and two others that sell boba and other sweets. This food court is our primary port of call at the market, and so it was this past Saturday when we met some friends there for lunch.
There were five adults, an 11 year old and our boys eating. Click on an image below to launch a slideshow with descriptions.
As you can see, very little of what we ate (and even less of what we didn’t eat) qualifies as health food. It was all very good though. And also all very inexpensive. It’s the rare item that costs more than $6 and the portion sizes are all very generous. Bear in mind that it’s all cash-only; but don’t worry about language issues—every vendor has at least one person on hand who speaks enough English for clear ordering purposes and most of them often have younger people at hand with whom there’s no question of a language barrier. And they’re more than happy to explain and even give you tastes of things you’re not sure of. As noted in the captions, it can be a bit of a scrum to get a table, especially if you’re in a large group, and it’s generally not a bad idea to carry your own disposable paper plates and bowls if you want to share.
So, if you haven’t been, go. We really should go more often ourselves (it had been a couple of years since our last visit).
By the way, a few years ago another similar complex opened elsewhere in St. Paul (Hmong Village) but it’s further away still from us (it’s already about a 50 minute drive to Hmongtown Marketplace for us) and so we’re yet to make it there. If you’ve been, and can compare the two, please chime in.