About two years ago I wrote up Hmongtown Marketplace in St. Paul, the mainstay of the Hmong combo food court/market scene. Here finally is a writeup of their main competition, the newer, larger and (relatively) flashier Hmong Village, further north in St. Paul. A number of people have been recommending it to me for a while but inertia and a slightly shorter driving distance had kept us going back to Hmongtown Marketplace. Well, now that I’ve been to both I can report that the differences are almost entirely of ambience—the food court at Hmong Village is less hectic and the vegetable market is enclosed. This latter fact makes it less charming in the summer—which is when we visited (in early August)—but I am sure renders it much more user-friendly for the 17 months of winter (which are almost upon us).
The cosmetic differences between the two establishments are obvious as soon as you arrive at Hmong Village. Hmongtown Marketplace sits on the space of a former lumberyard and both the parking lot and the buildings that house the food court and most of the market area are not in the best of shape. Hmong Village, on the other hand, has a far less ad hoc exterior and a more organized parking lot. And while it too is in what seems to be a converted warehouse of some sort, it doesn’t give the impression of being likely to fall down in the next big storm. There’s also far more room inside for the food court and the markets (there’s a large vegetable market and also lots of other small stores selling clothes etc.)
As noted above, the vegetable market is completely enclosed (so I think anyway—it’s possible, I suppose, there’s an outdoor section as well that I did not notice—though the map of the market on the official site suggests otherwise). I’m not sure what the vegetable selection will be like in the winter but it must certainly be far more comfortable to shop in there and to not have to walk from one building to another to get to the food court (as you have to do at Hmongtown Marketplace). I do have to say though that at all other times of the year the outdoor veg market at Hmongtown Marketplace is more to my taste—this is merely because I prefer outdoor vegetable markets and Hmong markets in particular remind me of North Indian haats.
The food court takes up one long side of the complex, with one, maybe two vendors situated just past the corner on the short side heading towards the vegetable market. As you walk along the line of vendors trying to figure out who sells what you will quickly realize two things: 1) the naming convention almost entirely revolves around the word “Kitchen” and 2) there’s not a whole lot of variety on offer; with the exception of a few things here and there pretty much every vendor presents the same menu: a lot of fried and grilled meats (quite a bit of it offal and most of it sporting the same food colouring), some noodle and noodle/soup dishes and papaya salads make up most of it. And if you’ve been to Hmongtown Marketplace you’ll also notice that there’s nothing on offer here that isn’t available there too (and boba is huge here too). At least on this visit, the reports I’d read about there being greater variety here did not prove to be accurate.
And if what’s on offer is more or less the same, based on our random sampling, I can also tell you that the reports I’d read of the better vendors from Hmongtown Marketplace having decamped to Hmong Village don’t seem to be true either. That is to say, I could not detect any effective difference between the dishes we ate at Hmong Village and those we’ve eaten over the years at Hmongtown Marketplace. Maybe there was a difference when Hmong Village first opened but there isn’t really one now. (Please keep in mind, of course, that I’m not any kind of expert on this cuisine—there may well be nuances that escaped me.) That said, there isn’t the kind of scrum for tables as there is at Hmongtown Marketplace and that’s something. As you can see in a picture below, there are tables opposite the long line of vendors—each has a number by it on the wall; you order your food and if it needs to be brought to your table you tell them which number you’re at and they bring it over.
While I’m contradicting the reports I’d read of Hmong Village (though I grant that these may be referring to earlier conditions at the market), I should also add that there are really no language issues for the non-Hmong customer. We ordered from a number of counters and at each one the first person we spoke to had perfectly serviceable English and some were completely fluent. The prices everywhere are very low (see my Hmongtown Marketplace report for some statistics on the economic state of the Minnesotan Hmong population). It is best to carry cash, though some places do take cards.
What did we eat?
- Meatballs on a stick from Mai’s Kitchen. These were very good and if someone’s not already selling these at the State Fair every year they should start doing so.
- Hmong sausage from Mom’s Kitchen. Decent.
- Half a chicken with black rice from Sida Kitchen. Decent.
- Pork uterus from either Her Kitchen or Moon’s Kitchen (my notes are unclear). Not much different from intestine and heavier on the red food colouring than on any other interesting flavour. You get rather a lot of it though for $6 so if you’re not with a group that’s willing to get intimate with an unknown pig maybe wait for another time.
- Spring rolls from either Moon’s Kitchen or Her Kitchen (see previous parenthetical). These were just to munch on while we waited for the bigger dishes.
- Kao poon from Xieng Khoung Kitchen. A noodle soup/curry with coconut milk. Good but I think the last one we ate at Hmongtown Marketplace was better.
- Papaya salad from Mai’s Papaya. I got this to go and it was excellent. As always, it’s made to your specifications and you can ask for it to be as hot as you like and you can also get tastes along the way as it’s prepared and give your input.
- Quite good pho from Pho Plus.
Brief comments on the vegetable market follow the giant slideshow below.
The vendors at the vegetable market are also well spaced and, as at Hmongtown Marketplace, everything is available at remarkably low prices. And you don’t have to be looking for specialty East Asian vegetables to shop there. Yes, there are all kinds of eggplants and eggplant-related things on offer and a lot of greens you won’t see at Cub Foods but there was also, for example, large bunches of asparagus for $1. There’s also a lot of fruit, from longans to oranges. Some of the vendors accept credit cards but, again, it’s best to carry a lot of cash with you: I purchased mangoes from a vendor whose store listed credit cards as a form of payment but the owner of the store was nowhere to be found—I ended up giving the money to his neighbour who made the sale: a number of the vendors work on that cooperative system, by the way.
The non-produce section of the market is also very large but it held little of interest for us. As at the food court, the stores seemed largely substitutable within genre, with clothes stores dominating (I got an inappropriate kick out of seeing anglo mannequins wearing Hmong clothing) and music, kitchen wares and the occasional Jesus-centric outlet rounding out the offerings.
If your interest, like ours, is largely in the food, I don’t know that I can recommend either Hmong Village or Hmongtown Marketplace over each other. I think the call comes down partly to ambience but largely to driving distance/convenience. Frankly, as much as we appreciated the greater ease of dining at Hmong Village it will probably not be enough to trump the increased travel time for us and the fact that Hmongtown Marketplace is closer to our other haunts in St. Paul. Your mileage may vary.