Union Hmong Kitchen becomes State Fair's first Hmong restaurant

A Hmong person with a wide smile holds out two dishes of food
A Union Hmong Kitchen employee holds out two of the restaurant's signature dishes at their booth in the International Bazaar at the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Nearly 50 years after the first Hmong refugees arrived in the Twin Cities, the Minnesota State Fair has its first Hmong food vendor.

Fair patrons can try skewered meats like Hmong sausage and Hilltribe chicken thigh or lemongrass turmeric tofu — each served with a side of purple sticky rice and a choice of three sauces. Union Hmong Kitchen is located along the back wall of the International Bazaar, just left of the stage.

“Hmong food itself as a standalone is made for the fair,” said chef and owner Yia Vang of the menu he put together. “It’s made to be carried around and to stay warm. In our tradition and culture, it’s all about packing up food and sending it with people when they come over to eat.”

Vang’s pop-up restaurant, also called Union Hmong Kitchen, is in the Graze food hall in the North Loop of Minneapolis. His upcoming restaurant is slated for 2023 in northeast Minneapolis, named Vinai after the refugee camp in Thailand where his parents met and where he was born.

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His parents and family are a core part of the State Fair operation, with Vang’s mother and two aunts making up to 1,200 pounds of purple sticky rice for the fair booth each day.

“They’re at our commissary kitchen pumping that out from 7-7 every day. They’re almost 70 years old,” Vang says. Three weeks ago, his parents fermented the 300 pounds of vegetables for the fair.

Vang spoke of the significance of being a Hmong vendor to all his employees working the State Fair — including many young Hmong people and Vang’s nieces and nephews.

“To see the progression of where we’ve come and to know that our success has been built on the backs of our mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers … It’s an honor to be here,” Vang said.

As for his State Fair traditions, Vang says he likes to pick up a turkey leg from the Turkey To Go stand and eat it across the street at the Poultry Barn while viewing the prize-winning turkeys.

“It’s the circle of life, you know?”