Outside Sociable Cider Werks’ taproom in northeast Minneapolis, there’s a food trailer that’s too big to easily move, but too small to qualify as a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Chef Yia Vang and his Hmong pop-up eatery Union Kitchen have occupied this semi-permanent home since polar vortex season early this year as the first tenant of this chef incubator space. Developed by forward-thinking Sociable partners Jim Watkins and Wade Thompson, it’s an “aha!” moment for the Twin Cities food and brewery scene.
Traditionally, taprooms have been largely built around serving booze, not food, and have reasonably symbiotic relationships with food-truck vendors. They stay symbiotic until the weather is inclement, the vendor has a better gig, or the taproom has an abysmal turnout. Then, one party can wind up with the short end of the relationship stick.
But Watkins and Thompson wanted the symbiosis to progress by providing residencies to rotating chefs. And that, says Watkins, is all about relationship building.
“We wanted to build an incubator,” he says. “There are so many talented chefs who don’t have the infrastructure that we do—a point of sale system, QuickBooks, etc. We can take care of all of that so they can stay focused on what they are supposed to be doing, which is making super-interesting, innovative food.”
In return for their investment and infrastructure, Sociable gets culinary consistency, with a dedicated chef over a residency term. At the moment, they’re considering a six-month stay for Union Kitchen, but that could change.
Union Kitchen’s cooking might not be immediately associated with brewery culture, but virtually all of Southeast Asia considers light beer the perfect accompaniment to its flavors. So Sociable’s easy-drinking hard ciders are a brilliant fit. It also moves the brew and taproom zeitgeist forward, away from shopworn burger and pizza menus.
Back on the trailer, the move was not without growing pains. In the early weeks, Vang had never seen fryer oil freeze into a big, yellow block before. Getting accustomed to their new digs in the dead of winter was a frigid challenge, but with Sociable’s wildly popular warm-weather season arriving, it’s all systems go.
Determined to put Hmong cooking on the map, Vang sees a through line connecting his own challenges to the struggles of his family and ancestors—his culinary touchstone and reason for being. Considered an ethnic minority in China, many Hmong people were forced to live as nomads in the remote mountains of China, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand, removed by government and military and unable to put down roots for any length of time.
“We’re never going to have an excuse [not to succeed]. It’s not contingent on a brick-and-mortar—that’s not going to define who we are,” he says. “I don’t care if we’re cooking out of a hole in the ground in straw and mud.”
Vang still dreams of running a brick-and-mortar restaurant one day as a beacon for other young Hmong chefs. The dream of ownership also runs through his veins. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Vang watched as his dad ultimately purchased a suburban Minnesota home for the family, though he never made more than $30,000 annually.
“For the first time, we could say, ‘This is ours.’ He explained to me what equity means,” says Vang. “Whatever I do, I’m asking, ‘How does this keep the legacy of my mom and dad alive?’”
The menu at Sociable is a snapshot of Union Kitchen’s signature Hmong-inspired cooking style and includes Midwestern classic ingredients and flavors—culled from what’s accessible, in the tradition of so many Hmong cooks before him. Among the easy sellers, there’s a bánh mì hot dog, taro chips, and a drinker’s dream of tater tots submerged in red coconut curry, dubbed “Minnesota Hmong Hotdish.”
“We’ve learned to use trigger words like ‘chips,’ ‘dog,’ and ‘barbecue,’” he says, in addition to kushiyaki (skewered and grilled meat) or khao sen (rice noodle soup) served with Mama Vang’s hot sauce—a hot sauce that will ruin all others for you, forever.
But probably nearest to the chef’s heart is a dish he’s named Hilltribe Chicken, a simply prepared half chicken served with purple sticky rice and signature Tiger Bite hot sauce. It’s a riff on a rotisserie chicken with a pot of rice that Vang says was perpetually waiting for him on the kitchen counter after the sporting events that his dad was usuaThis chef-incubator kitchen changes the game for taprooms and food trucks, starring chef Yia Vang’s fantastic Union Kitchenlly too busy working to attend.
“What I took from that chicken was that no matter what happened at the game, or no matter what else happened—like when I flunked out of school and I was so afraid to tell my dad—I always had a home,” Vang says. “And knowing you always have a home gives you freedom. Freedom to fail and to take risks. This chicken is love, and love is what makes us motivated to move forward.”
1500 Fillmore St. NE, Minneapolis