If you can make it past Frogtown, through the organized mess in the light rail construction zone, just north of all that you’ll find an often written about St. Paul food gem called the Hmongtown Marketplace.
The Hmongtown Marketplace occupies the old Knox Lumberyard near Como and Marion, with an outdoor market during the more clement months in the back lot. Within two main buildings, vendors in stalls, parceled in byzantine patterns throughout the buildings, sell everything from toilet paper to live chickens, with roughly a third of the stalls dedicated to food. Shoppers, mostly Hmong, fill the halls, jostling as they go, to loud music and the sounds of martial arts films. For the first-time visitor, the experience can be intimidating.
If you are planning your first trip or maybe have already gone and seeing the confusion, turned tail for the door, here is a plan on how to do it, and make a meal of it.
First, head to the outdoor market in between the two main buildings and buy produce from the local farmers. Make sure to get stuff for a salad—I prefer greens that work well for wraps, like leaf lettuce, and herbs, like mint, cilantro, and thai basil.
Next, go to the east building and buy vegetables and imported tropical fruits on tables laden with colorful and healthy fruits and vegetables. Ask for samples and advice on which fruits suit your taste. I like the longans, lychees, mangoes, and guava—all lush fruits.
Head south through the building, back toward the parking lot, and visit the small butcher shop. Stop and take pictures of the odd cuts of meat, like brain, stomach, feet, and liver. Purchase a pack of Hmong sausages for the grill. These fresh ground pork sausages get flavor from lemon grass, cilantro, and chilies. They come in small links, like breakfast sausages, and larger—the size of a long bratwurst.
Go back to your car to make a drop and relieve your arms from the tug of filled grocery bags, and then head to your last stop in the western building—the food court.
Here is where you can get the base for your meal, buying flavorful to-go foods from the line of vendors selling salads (like papaya and larb), barbequed meats and poultry, and stews both simple and exotic, like beef and greens, or tendon, or even the always popular rooster testicles—though maybe we should save those for your second visit.
Get some rice. They have jasmine rice, nutty and perfumed, or sticky rice, usually eaten rolled into little balls with your hands or my favorite bamboo, steamed in the hollow sections of bamboo wood and consequently steeped with woodsy flavor.
Pick up a few fried spring rolls for snacks, and if the sausages won’t satisfy your meat craving, add on some spicy barbequed beef or pork ribs, sold by the pound and cut to order with a heavy cleaver.
Lastly, try a cold dish like larb, a salad made here with shredded chicken, lemon grass, spices, and toasted rice. Green papaya salad is another popular choice, custom-made in individual batches in wooden mortar and pestles. They start with chilies and garlic, then add sugar and MSG, followed by tomatoes, long beans, and thai eggplant and lime, then fish sauce and fermented crab, and finally green papaya. They mash it all together, and then let the customers take a taste before serving the salad with a garnish of chopped peanuts. I get mine spicy (five to six chilies), light on the crab (super pungent), light on the MSG (not sure why, just because) and heavy on the peanuts for balance and crunch.
Now, head for home, light up the grill, and lay out your meal.
Cook the sausages and then cut them into thin slices at an angle. Cut the fried spring rolls into pieces for sharing. Put the rice and green papaya into bowls. Assemble the leaf lettuce and herbs into piles and use them to make wraps with a chunk of meat or spring roll in the center, some rice to hold it together, and the papaya salad as a spicy garnish. Clean and peel the fruit for a sweet and light dessert.
Ultimately, it’s a big market with lots to offer and this is just one way to enjoy it. Let me know about your favorites and what you discover, and for those of you still intimidated and needing more encouragement: I dare you!