Union Hmong Kitchen has been all over the place these last few years.
Chef Yia Vang’s Hmong food pop-up has taken him everywhere from MidCity Kitchen in St. Paul to Republic in Seven Corners to Northeast’s Sociable Cider Werks. Along the way, he was quietly serving some of the the best food in the Twin Cities with his nomadic restaurant—Vang was City Pages’ Best Chef honoree in 2020.
“It took a while for Union Hmong Kitchen to have some roots, because I really think we wanted to make sure it was the right spot,” Vang tells Racket.
The right spot turned out to be North Loop food hall Graze, where. he just announced, Union Hmong Kitchen will join spots like Soul Bowl and B.A.D. Wingz as a full-time, fully fledged restaurant.
“It’s the four basic elements on a Hmong dinner table: You have your rice, you have your protein, you have your vegetable, and you have your hot sauce,” Vang says. “We call that our ‘zoo siab meal’ … every Hmong food starts from there.”
Zoo siab (pronounced zhong shia) translates to “happy” from Hmong: “It’s our way of not getting sued by McDonald’s—it’s a ‘zoo siab’ meal, not a Happy Meal,” Vang laughs.
The idea is that everything you eat at UHK should work together, in harmony, to create the perfect meal. Sure, their purple sticky rice is good—but it’s better when you have the meat, the vegetable, and the hot sauce all together. That philosophy extends to the kitchen, too: A chef preparing hot sauce doesn’t taste it with a spoon, but with a piece of protein or sticky rice. You have to know how the hot sauce works together with the elements of the food.
“I asked my mother, ‘What makes Hmong food Hmong food?'” Vang says. “And she says, ‘Hmong food is balance.'”
Speaking of balance, don’t worry—Vinai, Vang’s more intimate fine-dining Hmong restaurant, is still in the works in Northeast. “Union Hmong Kitchen has always kind of been our lifeline,” he says. “It’s that window into what we can do with Vinai.” And it will be: At Graze, they’ll serve “Vinai feasts,” a meal for two or more that arrives a large bamboo platter with purple sticky rice, rice noodles, and either grilled chicken, Hmong sausage, or whole snapper.
If all goes according to plan, Union Hmong Kitchen will be up and running by Friday, October 29.
“Hmong people truly believe that we are the strongest when we are one,” Vang says. “That has been, I feel like, the anthem of our people. And I firmly believe that our cultural DNA is woven into our food. If you want to know our people, know our food.”