The Best Places to Experience Southeast Asian Cuisine in Minneapolis
Top places to get the real deal Southeast Asian food you were never expecting to find this far north.
Article By Mecca Bos
In the Hmong language, much like Eskimos have many words for snowflakes, there are a variety of ways to say: “Come and Eat,” each one with an increasingly insistent tone to the appeal.
Yia Vang, Minnesota’s most important Hmong chef, quickly gaining national prominence, tells it this way: “When you’re telling someone to come and eat, what you’re really saying is, “Come, be a part of our family.”
He’s among more than 60,000 Hmong living in Minnesota, many arriving as refugees, as Vang and his family did. Minnesota is home to the largest urban Hmong population in the world, and yet few of us think of Hmong food when we think of going out for “Asian.”
Thanks to the efforts of Vang and his peers, Minneapolis is slowly but surely becoming a hub of a nuanced Southeast Asian cooking, cooking that doesn’t wait for a Eurocentric voice to come around and label it “this” or “that.”
About half of Minnesota’s Asian population is Southeast Asian, with about 27 percent of our overall Southeast Asian population being Hmong. Minnesota also experienced a large influx of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970’s after the Vietnam war. With 26,000 Vietnamese calling our state home, most Minnesotans consider pho—noodle soup in long simmered bone broth—and banh mi sandwiches our birthright. Who has the best of either are the subject of long-standing debate.
The past few years have marked a specifically galvanizing time for Southeast Asian dining in Minneapolis, where chefs are stepping out from behind the safety of Kung Pao chicken and Pad Thai, and are embracing their true homeland identities.
Yai Vang began his Union Kitchen pop-ups just a couple short years ago, but in that time, he has enlightened more non-Hmong Minnesotans on his people’s cuisine than almost anyone before him. Together with the culinary talents he gained from his parents, along with his passionate voice, Vang is inviting all of Minnesota to the Hmong table with that insistent intonation—passionately imploring all of us to be a part of his family.
Due to open in December and projected to remain open through spring, the food trailer at Sociable Ciderwerks will be offering Vang’s forward-thinking Hmong cooking that amends the tired burgers, brats and pizza story that most breweries like to tell.
“I think all that stuff is delicious too, but if you go to Thailand, for instance, you have a whole group of people who think big bowls of noodles are the perfect thing to go with a beer,” says Vang.
So at Union Kitchen, you can expect big bowls of noodles, but not ordinary ones. Hand-rolled noodles, with chicken stock that’s been long simmered until schmaltzy fat rises to the top. Dress it with chiles, cilantro, hot sauce, and yes, it’s the perfect thing to go with a beer.
Also, their “yaki game” will be strong—skewers grilled over open fire using chicken hearts and other sustainable meats from Lowry Hill Meats.
Bowls of sticky rice with Vang’s mother’s own hot sauce, “Mama Vang’s Hot Sauce” which takes weeks to make, and she creates it especially for him.
But know that there will be more. Lots more—think whole fried fish, congee (rice porridge) with smoked trout, rabbit, and other local game; their own version of osso bucco with root vegetables grown by the Hmong American Farmer’s Association (HAFA) likes stunning tri-color carrots and purple yams, and yes, you guessed it, more.
If you are flush for Filipino restaurants in your city, you probably are not from Minneapolis. With very few other places to try Pinoy cuisine anywhere in Minnesota, Apoy has recently opened to gangbusters business in South Minneapolis.
This elaborate cooking is as difficult to wrangle as the alluring, signature adobo marinades that are a sure marker you’ve arrived in the right place. Thanks to the archipelago’s geographical situation near Vietnam, Taiwan, and Indonesia, as well as a long colonization by Spain make this food impossible to describe in paragraph.
Expect knee-buckling takes on roast pork and sumptuous blood sausage, as well as every edible portion of the beast: cheek, ear, intestine, and beyond. Or get impossible-not-to-like lumpia—shatter-crisp fried flutes, cousin to the egg roll, filled with lively ground pork.
The best way to eat this food is with a table full of friends, beer and wine flowing freely, both of which are on offer generously and affordably.
Nicollet Avenue, or “Eat Street” is famous for its mom and pop restaurants so intimately conjoined that it’s difficult to separate the five spice from the cumin from the marinara lingering in the air.
You can hardly do wrong along the avenue, but if you’re in search of something to satisfy a variety of cravings, and one you won’t soon forget, check out My Huong. Directly across the street from Quang (long famous and wildly popular) you’ll find this locals-in-the-know hidden gem.
This Chinese/Vietnamese spot will thrill you with the classics, like one of the best banh mi in town and noodle soups to rival any other. Get both spring rolls and egg rolls, as well as French Crepes, and broken rice dishes—a home cooking meal traditionally made with, you guessed it, the broken rice that could not be sold by rice farmers.
An all time-favorite special of mine is the beef stew noodle soup, with brisket, five spice, ginger, lemongrass, and orange peel that’s as powerful an elixir against winter as you’re likely to find anywhere.
Christina Nyugen’s ultra-hot spot is a prime example of a chef coming into her own identity. She and her business and life partner Birk Grudem are famous for their other ultra hot spot, Hola Arepa, featuring the culinary stylings of Columbia and Venezuela. Don’t miss it. Hola is a powerhouse in its own right.
But Hai Hai is a love letter to Chef Nyugen’s family, childhood, and personal cultural story. Our local Vietnamese dining population seeks her out for the “deep cuts” tailored for those who know them.
I have been blown over by the Banana Blossom Salad, with enchantingly floral banana flower, juicy citrus, and the funk of dry shrimp and fish sauce. The beef grilled in betel leaf is a delicacy you’ll find few, if any other places locally, and absolutely do not miss the cocktail program, where, among many other details, fresh sugar cane will be pounded into your drink.
If it’s classic Cantonese-style Chinese you seek, Minnesota state treasure Tammy Wong and her three-decades running institution Rainbow Chinese is the place to go. The opulent room is a time capsule of koi aquariums, elaborate carved wainscotting, and opalescent landscaped wallpaper.
To speak of the food is to speak of history. Wong designed the wok stations herself, as Minneapolis had never seen the likes of her culinary stylings prior to her entry to the scene in 1987. Her Vegetable Wontons and Five Spice Wings are what dreams are made of, and there is no better eggroll in the state—which is not hyperbole.
And if you have time...Get out of the city and into Minneapolis’ suburbs for these two world-class Southeast Asian dining experiences:
Thirteen years ago, Ann Ahmed opened Lemongrass Thai in Brooklyn Park.
“Even though I’m Laotian, I was hesitant to call it Lao—people were still wandering in and saying ‘Can I get Kung Pao Chicken and Orange Chicken?”
But she always knew she wanted a second restaurant, and as she began traveling to her native Laos, and neighboring countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippenes, and beyond, she knew she couldn’t be restricted to just one cuisine as she had been in the past. So on her new menu you’ll find inspirations from all along the 14th Parallel, a circle of latitude 14 degrees north of the earth’s equatorial plane.
Papaya salad that’s “super funky in smell—dark, pungent, and leaves you really satisfied.” Or Thai Basil Duck, cooked classically in the French style, thanks to French colonization of the area, and reminiscent of what you might find in a fancy hotel in Laos or Vietnam. Traditional drunken noodles hit with shrimp paste to give it funk— known colloquially as “Nasi Sauce”, lending power and fire to all that touches it. And, your old favorite, Pad Thai, but this time enlivened with pickled radish and yes, more spice.
But don’t call this fusion. Amend’s point here is to offer a spirit of generosity, much like you might experience at her grandmother’s table or her Bengali husband’s family wedding.
“Think of going to your minority neighbor’s home and going in and having all of this beautiful food laid out before you.”
As if that weren’t enough, Lat 14 is home to Tommy Goetz, purported to be the baddest cocktail maker currently in the Twin Cities game, and Lat 14 is a good opportunity to bust out your glad rags. This is as fine a dining experience as you’re likely to get around here—do not be fooled by its situation in a converted Perkins in the ‘burbs.
While it’s a bit of a haul outside of the city center, any good traveler knows that to get the good stuff, she must go where the communities who cook for their own people are living and working.
Welcome to Brooklyn Park, home to many of our Vietnamese residents, and where those in the know travel for the real deal.
I’ve long thought of MT Noodles as probably the best Vietnamese restaurant in either city, in two cities with many “bests” in this particular category. Truly “worth the drive” it’s in a class by itself. Vietnamese families travel here for a taste of things they can rarely get elsewhere in the state, such as steamed egg loaf, shrimp in beancurd wrap, lacy Vietnamese egg crepes, and so much more that will have you telling your friends that you didn’t have to travel to Southeast Asia to get a taste of the motherland.
With the most generous use of fresh herbs I’ve seen anywhere, entire branches of fresh basil and mint accompany dishes, along with rafters of dipping sauces so abundant that orders sometimes arrive on cafeteria trays and bamboo platters rather than plates.
Go check out this family-owned and operated strip mall wonder, to remember why getting off the beaten track matters so much.
About the Author
Mecca Bos has been writing about the Twin Cities food scene for more than 15 years and she’s been cooking in professional kitchens for almost as long. If there is something to be tasted in town, she’s tasted it. She loves few things more than bragging about her beloved hometown and food cities, Minneapolis/ St. Paul. Her work can be found both locally and nationally, and at meccabos.com.