Appetites: Union Hmong Kitchen moves into new space inside Graze

Chef Yia Vang of Union Hmong Kitchen
Chef Yia Vang of Union Hmong Kitchen.
The Restaurant Project

The Hmong translation for “Yia” means “iron skillet,” a fitting name for a young Hmong boy who begins life in a Thai refugee camp and goes on to become a celebrated chef.

If you've been paying any attention to the Twin Cities food scene over the last few years, you know Yia Vang, the creative mastermind behind Union Hmong Kitchen. Not only has he been preparing to open a new space inside Graze food hall, he also recently celebrated becoming a U.S. citizen after coming to the U.S. when he was 4 years old.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation. Hear a part of the conversation with the audio player above.

The North Loop neighborhood brings together different types of diners. How are you planning to hit those different groups and your menu?

One of the great things about Hmong food is it's for all kinds of diners. It’s for anybody who's just hungry. You know, like our main meal, we're calling it the Zoo Siab meal.

It literally translates to happy, so it's our “happy meal.” You get sticky rice, a protein, some vegetable sides and a hot sauce. It's great for sharing with people. And it's also great for if you just want to indulge yourself.

You're using a hot sauce in Union Hmong Kitchen that is actually your mom's recipe. Tell us a little more about that.

The thing is I grew up eating it. It was always in some kind of container in the back of the fridge. You know, it's like the Can't Believe It's Not Butter container, which is always there.

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I didn't realize how delicious it was until a lot of my friends started eating it. And they're just like, “Dude, what is this stuff? I love it.” So it's something that she's been making for us for the last three years. I think they've made it a big project. They’ll buy all the chilis from all the different farmers, they'll grow their own chilis too. And then they just kind of throw big bash and they spend like almost a week making it.

When people of Chinese descent came to the U.S. and open restaurants, many tweak their recipes for American taste. And in some cases, they came up with dishes that weren't Chinese at all. Has that happened with Hmong food or is what we get in the Twin Cities ‘authentic?’

You know, I think that “authentic” is a very interesting word. I tell people that I think of it as a closed- and open-hand mentality. We close because we hold on to the truths that make us who we are as Hmong people, but we're open because we're open to new ideas.

The food we do, some Hmong people will say, “Oh, that's not really authentic Hmong food.” I'm like, well it is authentic to the area we are in now. Because the point of Hmong food is not about the produce and the product, it's actually about the philosophy behind Hmong food, our flavor profile.

I would tell people that it's always there: lemongrass, ginger, garlic, shallots, Thai chilis. And then for us, we cook everything over the fire a lot. So there's a lot of grilling, there's a lot of good charring, a lot of good capitalization on some of our protein. So that's very indicative to Hmong food.

Earlier this month, you became a U.S. citizen after decades of living here. What was the ultimate motivation behind that decision?

There's a couple of motivations behind it. I think one was just for the sake of traveling. International traveling is opening up again. It's logistically easier just to have citizenship here in the U.S. [for] visas and passports and stuff like that.

And then too, I think that there's this thing that I've been really thinking about — what does citizenship mean? This process was almost a two-year process. So about a year and a half, almost two years ago, it all started. You literally fill out an application and there's a big fee you pay, and then you kind of just wait.

And so in that process, I thought about it a lot. Like, am I just getting citizenship because that's the next thing to do, or that's the right thing to do? Or like, what's the weight, like the meaning behind it? You know, that part really just sunk deep inside of me, what it means to be a citizen here in the United States.

Often when we interview new citizens, they talk about wanting to give back to their adopted country, but you've been giving your gifts here in the Twin Cities for a long time. Does anything change for you and your customers moving forward?

No, I don't think anything changes. I think that we [are] still doing exactly what we've set out to do when we first started doing this. All the food we do here and the reason why we are doing what we're doing is, we get to tell a story. And that's not our story.

But for me, especially personally, it's a story of mom and dad, it's their legacy. I tell people, I just merely make sticky rice and meats. And if that draws people in to hear more about our people, and how our people got here, then let that be the proverbial cookie crumbs for them to follow.

You're not just stopping at this space in Graze food hall, you're moving beyond this, aren't you?

Absolutely. You know, Union Hmong Kitchen, it started out as a pop-up. I jokingly tell people it's not that we found like a home. I mean, it's a home, but it's more of like an apartment complex. And while we're here at Graze, we're still moving forward to build out our first brick-and-mortar Vinai, which is the name of the refugee camp that my parents met in, in ‘77. They got married in ‘78, I was born in ‘84, and then we left that camp in ‘88.

So the name itself has a lot of meaning within our family, within our community. From ‘75 to ‘92, Vinai hosted 90,000 refugees in Thailand, and 90 percent of them were Hmong and of those 90 percent, [the] majority ended up here in the Midwest, especially here in the Twin Cities. So when you say the word Vinai, a lot of Hmong families, we just right away go, “Oh, yeah, we know what that is.”

But for other people here, who aren't familiar with our story, we get to give them a little history lesson of what that name means to us. So we're really excited for that, as we're in the process of finishing up some finances and stuff like that, and being able to — hopefully, this spring or this summer — to have Vinai ready for everyone to come and join us.