Capital Grills

Is St. Paul the country’s next great barbecue city?

The first time I heard about the International Marketplace was a couple years ago, when my friend Heather called. “Todd and I went and got ribs at the Hmong marketplace again,” she said. “We’re obsessed. You’ve been there, right?”

I had no idea what she was talking about.

“You are going to faint with happiness,” she continued. “Can you meet me there at one o’clock?”

Then she spent 10 minutes trying to explain where it is. If you’re familiar with the former lumberyard where Como Avenue and Marion Street meet in the shadow of the state capitol, you know where it is. If not: Get off I-94 on the Marion/Kellogg exit in St. Paul, and go north on Marion until the road starts to veer strangely to the east. Look around. Across the street on a nowhere-looking chainlink fence is a sign: International Marketplace. That’s it! Feel free to park pell-mell in the gravel lot. Everyone parks pell-mell in the gravel lot. It feels like a rural flea market.

Head west. Usually everyone is streaming toward a dark red building with a sign that reads “West Building.” Inside are dozens of vendors selling…everything: children’s shoes that light up, faux G.I. Joes, silver gladiator sandals, LED bouquets, Hmong silver dowry tokens, medicinal herbs, DVDs of water-buffalo fights. It’s totally overwhelming, like being transported right out of Minnesota and into Southeast Asia. Soak it all in. Then walk down the corridor to the food court. You’ll know it instantly, because a half-dozen food vendors share space on a long wall that face a half-dozen communal tables. On the weekends, open space at these tables is more rare than gold. On weekdays, there is plenty of room, but you miss the thrill the crowd imparts.

Welcome to Hmong barbecue paradise. I’ve been to this food court at the International Marketplace a dozen times in the last two years, and it has become one of my absolute favorite places in the state. I love to take guests visiting from out of town. I love to go myself. But I’ve never written about it, because I’ve always felt the need to be definitive, to get to the bottom of it, and as such I’ve failed. I mean, I’ve read a lot about Hmong culture. (I recommend two books by Keith Quincy: Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat for a different history of the Vietnam War, and Hmong: History of a People, a fascinating look at a people who did not, in fact, start their lives the day they got to Minnesota.) Even with all my reading, however, I’ve never­ felt like I had anything truly authoritative to say about the International Marketplace (though I am enough of an authority to tell you that most Hmong people call it “the flea market”). I’ve gotten kind and helpful Hmong guides to take me on tours and explain the food, and I’ve picked up such valuable points as: Elders like bitter herbs and boiled chicken, and young people like fried chicken and barbecue. Of course they do. In every culture, be it French, Jewish, or Japanese, the elders like bitter herbs and boiled chicken, and the young people like fried chicken—and, usually, loud music, fast cars, and leather jackets.

However, even with this incremental bit of fried-versus-boiled-chicken wisdom, I seem to have plateaued. I have lately had to come to terms with the sad fact that I will never be an authority on the flea market, just an informed traveler. That said, I think I can be useful in assisting you to discover, make sense of, and enjoy one of the most fascinating food experiences Minnesota currently has to offer. And one of the cheapest: A family of four can eat a groaning amount for $20, so it fits nicely into this year’s various themes of stay-cation and save-more.

So, without further ado:

My Admittedly Incomplete, But Hopefully Genuinely Helpful Guide to Discovering the Food at St. Paul’s International Marketplace, Which Most Hmong Call the Flea Market.

1. Make your way there, park, enter, find the food court. This takes some doing. (See above.)

2. Walk back and forth among all the stalls, examining the barbecue. There’s a lot of barbecue. Hmong barbecue is not made over coals, but in super hot ovens that people call “hot boxes,” though a better word for them might be kilns, because, once locked, their internal temperature zooms up really high. How high? I’m not exactly sure. I’ve asked a lot of people and gotten answers from 600 to 800 degrees. Put something like a chicken with fatty skin in there and the hot box seems to essentially fry the food in scalding air, until it crisps something fierce. Sometimes the foods are cooked before inserting in the hot box, sometimes not. It depends. This hot-box dry-frying results in extraordinarily crisp skin on pork, chicken, and so on, but also soft interior fat.

On your first trip up and down the row of vendors, try to identify a couple different foods. You’ll see lemongrass sausage, a dark burgundy colored fragrant pork sausage that is ubiquitous at the market and is served solo or with red sticky rice—or with the sticky rice and a spicy-sour hot sauce. It’s great, but it also seems to be the same no matter what vendor you visit.

You’ll also see pale gold chicken legs, stuffed under the skin with bean-thread noodles and carrots; large pink pork meatballs on skewers; two sorts of fried chicken (one plain, which you’ll know by its classic pale brown crackly fried-chicken color, and one lacquered red with a marinated skin); red-lacquered pork spareribs; mahogany brown beef ribs; even darker beef jerky; whole tilapia coated with herbs and wrapped in plastic; and something people call “crispy pork” or “crisp pork,” which is in fact a section of pork belly—the section bacon is made from—marinated so that it’s red and air-fried in the hot box so that its crisp, salty, and, in spots, even creamy. You’ll know it because it looks like a whole section of bacon, unsliced. This is a great, great thing.

3. Now that you’ve done your scouting, it’s time to make a game plan. But don’t order yet!

4. Instead, get papaya salad at Hmong Express Cuisine, because it takes them a while to make it. For my money, they make the best papaya salad in the market—even better than the salad made by the nearby stall that has “Papaya” in its name.

Papaya salad is a key part of Hmong cuisine; it’s made by shredding green, unripe papayas and tossing with a dressing made by grinding fish sauce, lime juice, fresh chili peppers, perhaps tamarind, toasted crushed peanuts, and other ingredients together in a salad-bowl sized mortar and pestle. It’s as critical to a Hmong meal as a green salad is to one at a French bistro. Hmong Express Cuisine’s papaya salad is so great because they make it with lots of sliced tomatoes, paper-thin slices of lime, and pieces of tiny green raw eggplant, all of which combine to make a papaya salad that’s unlike any I’ve had in a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant. It’s somehow meatier and riper. It’s wonderful. Be sure to order it mild, though, unless you drink Tabasco like water—the mild is fierce.

While you’re ordering your papaya salad, look carefully at the counter of Hmong Express Cuisine. Do you see any tomato relish in plastic deli containers? If so, rejoice. This stewed, spicy condiment, which I think of as a halfway point between an Italian soffrito and a cooked Mexican salsa, is unspeakably delicious: savory, tart, layered with vegetable nuance and herbal lilt. Add some to your rice and meat and you will immediately be struck with a sort of gold-bug frenzy and want to buy the rest of it to stockpile against the less tasty moments in life.

5. It will take the good people at Hmong Express a few minutes to make your papaya salad, so take your tomato condiment and head to Coco’s Island for larb salad. Coco’s Island has two separate outposts at the International Marketplace; one primarily offers takeout and sweet tapioca-based desserts, but the other is a must-visit—it’s where they serve the best larb salad in town.

What’s larb? It’s a whole category of spicy meat salads seasoned with roasted rice powder. I particularly like the larb at Coco’s Island—especially the cooked chicken larb—because they use an abundance of herbs, lots of cilantro, scallions, and various mints and basils, all of which combine with the roast-toasty rice powder to create a dish that is simultaneously deep and zingy and unforgettably tasty.

6. You’ll see steam trays full of various stews. Skip these. I’ve tried dozens, and found merely two or three I’d recommend. They’re not easy to understand. One recent encounter netted me a big pot of greens, Thai eggplant, and potatoes. I’ve seen the greens before but don’t know their true name. I’ve been told they’re “mustard flower” and also “hollow root vegetable,” but they taste sugar-sweet and are thick and leathery.

7. Now that you’ve got your larb and papaya-salad situation sorted out, it’s time for barbecue. Order what looks good, though I strongly recommend the crispy pork: It’s essentially a quarter pound of bacon just for you! I also recommend one of the fried-chicken iterations, as well as a Hmong sausage. Most things cost between $3 and $6.

I’ve had barbecue from all the stands at the marketplace, and haven’t found any rhyme or reason that one is better than another. Freshness seems to play a part—if you see people taking meat out of a hot box, get some of that. Otherwise, just pick out what looks good.

You will be asked if you want your meat cut up to eat on-site, or if you want it to-go. You’ll also be asked if you want rice. Some of the rice is “red,” a sort of putty-claret color, and some is “black,” a dark claret. These are iron-rich strains of sticky rice, the darker the rice the more minerally it tastes. You eat it all by dipping the barbecue in hot sauce and having it with rice; you can do this with your fingers or a fork.

If you get all your barbecue and rice from one spot, they will offer to pile your food into a single square Styrofoam box. You take your food, sit down at one of the long communal tables, Hmong Express delivers your papaya salad, and you sink into a phenomenal food experience that—unless you’ve been to Southeast Asia—is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Take some barbecue, dip it in one of the accompanying chili sauces, take a bite, have some rice, have some larb, have some more barbecue—that’s good food!

As you marvel, take a moment to look around. Can you believe you’re in St. Paul? My sources tell me that the upcoming 2010 census is likely to reveal that the Hmong community in St. Paul numbers at least 100,000, which would make it the largest in the world outside Asia, even bigger than the one in California. This will mean various things to various people, but to me it means that St. Paul may one day achieve its rightful place as a nationally prominent barbecue city, like Memphis or Kansas City.

What makes Hmong barbecue different from the world’s other barbecue? A remarkable fusion of Asian flavors (chile, soy, fish paste, lemongrass, and so forth), Asian traditions (that black sticky rice is iron-rich, grows on mountaintops, and is extremely filling—all key attributes for people living among Southeast Asia’s mountaintops), a uniquely Hmong git-r-done practicality of doing more with less, and, above all, American abundance.

Just as Italian-American food was born when traditions of the Italian Cucina Povera—the cuisine of survival—met the bounty of American grocery stores, so too has Hmong barbecue evolved. It’s at the astonishing place where a long, and far-away past meets the abundant, delicious present.

International Marketplace
217 Como Ave., St. Paul,
Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.