United Noodles feeds Twin Cities appetite for Asian foods

Judy and her fresh dumplings
Judy Wen has been running the deli counter at United Noodles for five years. She's originally from China and prides herself on cooking authentic Chinese foods, like dumplings.
MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham

United Noodles began as a bean sprout producer in Minneapolis 36 years ago. Since then, it has grown right along with the Twin Cities Asian immigrant population and our appetite for Asian ingredients.

United Noodles now stocks products that come from 15 countries -- including China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka.

United Noodles
United Noodles was founded in Minneapolis in 1972. It's the largest Asian market in the Midwest.
MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham

A couple of years ago, this vast variety of items in the 20,000-square-foot store caught the attention of Food Network star Rachael Ray.

She toured United Noodles in 2006 for her show "Tasty Travels."

"Noodle-rama. Check it out!"

Ray checked out the noodles all right, but she had a little problem with the name.

"Check out specialty markets like Union Noodle Company when you're traveling," Ray announced on the television program.

The name is United Noodles.

Chinese noodles
United Noodles began as a bean sprout producer. The owner of the store, Ramon Tan, noticed many Asian restaurants and immigrants wanted a source to buy good noodles. He refocused the company to meet this need.
MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham

Store manager Mun Hoe Sze Tho laughs when he hears about Ray's mistake.

"I didn't notice that, though. Did she really?" he asks. "When I see her again I'll correct her the next time -- if she comes back."

Sze Tho was one of the people who led Rachael Ray around United Noodles during her visit. He's originally from Malaysia, and has been with United Noodles for about four years.

The store is in southeast Minneapolis, and is not easy to find. It's located in an industrial area where Cedar Ave., Minnehaha Ave. and 24th St. converge, near the Hiawatha light rail line.

The supermarket carries about 8,000 products such as wasabi peas, organic soba noodles, lychee pudding and Hello Kitty candy. You can even buy Chinese laundry soap and medicines, all with English translations and labeling.

The deli counter at United Noodles sells authentic Asian food. These ducks are cooked in the Chinese style,with the head included.
MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham

United Noodles also carries Red Envelopes, a key item to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The envelopes are decorated with symbols of luck and wealth. People fill them with money and hand them out during the New Year celebration.

But it's not just Chinese immigrants who shop here.

"They have a lot of things from the Philippines. It's homesick food for me," said Raquel, shopper from Minneapolis.

Raquel was born in the Philippines, and shops at United Noodles several times a week when she needs a little taste of home.

"We have sort of a dessert dish called halo halo. It's just a mixture of fruits and it brings me home right away," Raquel said.

Raquel likes the food
Raquel of Minneapolis shops at United Noodles several times a week. She is originally from the Philippies and enjoys getting a little taste of home.
MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham

A mixture of shaved ice and milk with sweet beans and fruits, halo halo is a popular Filipino dessert.

Students from the nearby University of Minnesota make up a large part of United Noodles' frequent shoppers.

Some are exchange students who are searching for a taste of home. Others, like Dave, are students who spent time studying abroad and enjoy the local access to the foods they discovered. Dave spent a semester studying in China.

"There's a special green tea drink that you just can't get anywhere else," Dave says. "And also for cooking. If you want to do any cooking you need to get your ingredients here. They don't have them anywhere else."

Store manager Mun Hoe Sze Tho says the weak U.S. dollar and the strong Asian economy mean more Asian college students are coming to Minnesota. He's focusing on increasing the number of Japanese products available.

"From what I see right now, it has the potential of growing still for Asian markets. Because we have companies like 3M, they do bring in more ex-patriots here," Sze Tho says.

United Noodles recently expanded and opened a satellite store at the MidTown Global Market complex in Minneapolis.

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