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Jun 5, 2009 06:57 AM

MSP: Somali or Hmong Food?

According to Minnesota Public Radio (circa 2001) Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population outside of Africa, with estimates ranging from 6,000 to as many as 60,000 in Minnesota. There seems to be about 40,000+ Hmong, mostly in St. Paul (24,000) and Minneapolis (10,000.) Are there any Somali or Hmong restaurants of note? On a recent visit I did see a mysterious place on Lake and Chicago. The signage was limited and while it appeared to be a Somali restaurant it did not seem that welcoming - as if it was a private place. I think TDQ has mentioned Hmong markets in St. Paul.

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  1. Here's a link to my post awhile ago, with photos, on the Hmong market and where to find it etc.

    For Somali food, you can try Safari at the Midtown Global Market, or Hamdi next door (I think tvdxr may have posted on Hamdi. In fact, tvdxr probably has several posts about African foods that you have have a look at, or Qoraxlow.


    13 Replies
    1. re: The Dairy Queen

      Definitely check out tvdxr's posts for African food. Here's a link to his profile without the trailing punctuation (which chow can't handle, alas):

      And definitely try Safari - it's a tasty, accessible introduction to Somali food. I love the spicy Chicken Suqqar and the really hot green sauce!


      Safari Express
      920 E Lake St, Minneapolis, MN 55407

      1. re: AnneInMpls

        Someone correct me if I'm wrong but Hmong's originally came from the mountainous area of Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. I believe the majority living in MN are from Laos though. Just about every Vietnamese and Thai restaurant in town is owned by a Laotian. Minneapolis is known for having great Vietnamese food. Whether it is really "authentic" is up for debate. It would be interesting to hear from someone that can name a Vietnamese spot that is the real deal. I wonder what city has a large population of refugees that were actually from Vietnam. That said, Quang's is always solid for popular dishes like Pho and Bahn Mi. Also I encourage everyone to try their sea bass soup which is only served on the weekends and is one of my favorite dishes in Minneapolis.

        1. re: dave43

          Pho Tau Bay is the real deal. Saigon is the real deal.


          1. re: The Dairy Queen


            Is Pho Tau Bay the chain of Pho restaurants or am I thinking of another spot? Also both these spots have owners/cooks that are from Vietnam?

            1. re: dave43

              Pho Tau Bay is the real deal as is Saigon as TDQ pointed out. The cooks and owners are Vietnamese one and all. The 'chain' you are probably referring to is at the location of the former "Yummy" chinese spot, now called Pho Hoa Bien or something quite similar. It's a franchise out of S. Korea and utterly forgettable.

          2. re: dave43

            I'm not an expert, but this is what I know about the Hmong background. You are right that in the Twin Cities, most Hmong are from the mountainous region of Laos... however, they would not identify themselves as Laotian (instead, they were a minority population basically oppressed by the Lao government). We have Hmong and Laotian refugees and immigrants--they are two separate ethnic groups, but with similar food. A lot of the younger Hmong grew up in Thai refugee camps, so that influence is there.

            Anyway... Hmong food is pretty different from Vietnamese or Thai, I think. I've had boiled greens, boiled chicken (the WHOLE chicken), sticky rice, spiced sausages, grilled meats, and papaya salad. Not a lot of sauces, but spicy peppers are big. Most of my Hmong food experience comes from home parties and festivals with Hmong friends. We also get take-out occasionally from the deli at FoodSmart around University and Dale (I think the name changed to Sun Foods recently). Seems authentic. A big mound of sticky rice and 2-3 sausages makes a great meal for two.

            1. re: dave43

              Hmong people are not Laotion, Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Thai. Hmong are a distince ethnic group originally from China, but also inhabiting Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and the northern most region of Cambodia (and only since the 1950's). Because of the historical, traditional, cultural, and ethnic differences between the Hmong and the other groups listed, the food of the Hmong are also quite different. For authentic Hmong food, try the Red Pepper Cafe, 864 University Ave W
              St Paul, MN 55104. This restuarant is about 3 years old and usually full with customers.

              For authentic Somali food, I agree that you ought to try the Midtown Global Market. It's a great place, and you can get foods from other regions of the world there as well. I quite enjoy the Mexican food there--or go on Lake towards St. Paul to the Central Market (large green building on your right hand side) and eat the most delicious Mexican foods there.

              1. re: dibi

                My one visit to Red Pepper was dismal. I tried the squash dish the waiter recommended. Did I order wrong? What do you recommend there?


              2. re: dave43

                There is a small chain of restaurants called Pho 79. There's one off of HWY 280 in St. Paul. It's called Pho 79 because they serve "Pho"(Traditional Vietnamese beef, noodle soup). The "79" is because their family immigrated to the U.S. in 1979. I eat there atleast once a month. Main courses(I've never finished in one sitting) are 7.49 or so. 9/10 the people I take there get a doggy bucket and usually have an entire meals worth of soup or noodle salad left over.

                1. re: dave43

                  Hmong are the aboriginal chinese. It's a fact stated in Han history that the hmong were living in northern China when the Han arrived. Han people are the ethnic majority in China by the way just in case you aren't familiar with China. Yes, China consists of lots of different ethnicities just like here in America

                  The only authentic Hmong foods are boiled chicken with herbs, boiled pork with greens and some other dishes which I'll decline to name because they are too graphic. Dishes such as papaya salad, laab, etc...are a mainstay of the Hmong diet but are not authentic Hmong.dishes. But I will have to say that the Hmong sausage is the best sausage in the world - the Lao version is sour. Original Hmong dishes are plain, simple and uncomplex. They are meant that way because almost all Hmong food is meant to be eaten with pepper sauce. Alot of hmongs fail to mention or elaborate how important the pepper sauce is in hmong cuisines. It's like wine, different pepper sauce for different meats and meals. There has been alot of evolution in pepper sauces but common ones are plain red pepper, dried chilli pepper, cilantro and grn onion and lime pepper, and my new favorite - tamarind pepper with chops. Pepper sauce is unique among the different ethnicities so hmong pepper sauce is pretty much authentic.

                  Important Note: More than half of the Hmong in the world live in southern China and alot of them speak with a dialect and accent so thick that it is very hard if impossible to understand one another. The hmong in China eat totally different dishes - besides the boiled stuff and pepper I named above - than the ones that migrated to Laos and Vietnam and then settled here. Because what most hmong people eat here in America was influenced by their Lao,Viet, and Thai neighbors. The dishes in China resemble chinese cuisine. Also, if you don't like pepper than maybe Hmong food isn't for you. And if you want Hmong Chinese cuisine than you'd have to fly to china. But it might be worth it because it looked really good.

                  1. re: MilliePop

                    Lao sausage is sour to you? There's more than one type of Lao sausage. The kind that is typically served at Lao restaurants is the normal kind (non-sour), but then you've also got "fermented" Lao sausages which are sour. The fermented pork sausages are similar to the regular kind except that they are allowed to ferment for a couple of days to make them sour.

                    There's also another completely different type of fermented pork sausage that doesn't have a casing at all and this type is called "Som Moo", which is used in the Lao appetizer "Nam Khao" (fried rice ball salad).

                    The Hmong in Laos have incorporated traditional Lao dishes like papaya salad and larb into their diet, which shouldn't surprise anyone since they too are Lao nationals. I'm sure Hmong cuisine has different types of dipping sauces, but in case you didn't know...Lao cuisine is also full of various spicy dipping sauces especially because sticky rice is our main staple and we tend to eat with our hands (with the exception of soups and noodle dishes).

                    1. re: yummyrice

                      I stand corrected. I went and rechecked and I must've had the fermented ones. Other than that the sausages are the same. I guess we can attribute those yummy sausages to the Lao also. Question if you happe to catch you guys make the sausages made of just pork and ginger, hung and dried for weeks/months?

                      1. re: MilliePop

                        Yes, Hmongs in the U.S. are typically from Laos. In the U.S., they are known as "Hmong", but in Laos they are called "Lao Soung" meaning the highland Lao. Many of them settled in Minnesota and some have even opened Lao restaurants. Lao is the official nationality of Laos, so Hmongs who were Lao citizens before coming to the U.S. and becoming American citizens typically know how to cook Lao foods. As far as herbs used in Lao cuisine, we typically use lemongrass, galanga, garlic, kaffir leaves, ginger, and many other herbs. Lao cuisine is heavy on herbs. So any of those herbs may be used either individually or as a curry in Lao sausages. And yes, there are Lao sausages that use single herbs like galanga or ginger and then allowed to air dry, but overall we typically prefer a curry paste mix consisting of at least three herbs.

            2. The "mysterious place" on (near) Lake and Chicago might be Ibrahim. The storefront is decked out in Somali flag decor. Obviously, I'm not an expert in Somali cuisine (if a notable cuisine unique to Somalia specifically exists) but I found the place to be pretty unremarkable. The counter man was very friendly and welcoming. The atmosphere was dumpy. The food wasn't very interesting.

              The Hmong International Market in St. Paul (to which TDQ alluded) is a wonderful experience. Dara Moskowitz-Grumdahl just did a piece on it in the June "Minnesota Monthly". I was recently over there will my good friend (and sometimes Chow poster) Bill Roehl and we had a feast. Note that the neat little tea shop has closed and will soon be replaced by a .... drum roll .... tea shop. But the owner said she'll have more bakery stuff and more mainstream teas.

              I'd love to hear from someone with knowledge on east African cuisine. I've often wondered if the Ethiopian food I'm more familiar with is similar to Somali cuisine.

              1. in terms of somali food, Rick Nelson of the Star Tribune wrote a review of three places a few years ago. worth a read.

                1 Reply
                1. re: petergray

                  Unfortunately, none are Somali and at least one "Kenkayba's Place" has long-since closed.

                2. There are several Somali restaurants in Minneapolis, concentrated in the West Bank (or is it East?) and Lake St. areas. Three that come to mind immediately are Hamdi (located across from the Midtown Global Market on Lake and Chicago); Safari Express (fast food; located IN the Midtown Global Market), and Qoraxlow (located near the Mercado Central further down on Lake Ave.) Several others exist, perhaps numbering over a dozen. No idea on how often they open and close, but I'm guessing it's all the time. I concur on the (externally) "unwelcoming" aspect - the Somali restaurants I have seen and heard about do not seem keen on a general clientele. Many, in fact, have separate men and women's dining areas. However, most experiences at such restaurants seem to be pleasant ones.

                  As for Hmong food, there's Red Pepper, as mentioned here, the Foodsmart deli (not just a "deli", but a full-out dining area with LOTS of chairs), and the famous International Market, where there are several stands serving up Hmong and other area cuisines. There's also a place called Cakes by Fhoua that I had on my Unique Ethnic Dining list (in need of a serious update!). A useful list is here:

                  In my (limited) experience, Hmong food tends to be plain, consisting primarily of meat and sticky rice. They like to accompany their meals with a very spicy pepper, though the food itself isn't that spicy. However, at the "Hmong" International Market you'll find a lot of Thai and Lao (?) specialties, including some very spicy papaya salad.

                  I've only eaten Somali twice (and once was just a snack). It kind of reminds me of a mix of Indian, Italian, and perhaps Ethiopian food. One quirk is that they serve bananas with pasta.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: tvdxer

                    Make sure to telephone ahead before visiting Cakes by Fhoua. Last time I checked, they had given up their storefront and were looking for another. I don't know if they've found one yet.


                    1. re: tvdxer

                      I eat at Hamdi's every time I'm in town. It's delicious. Not to sound too snotty, but different does not equal unwelcoming. They are very welcoming. Just because they have separate dining areas for men and women, that doesn't mean they're not great. It's mainly for the comfort of their general customers, which is the Somali community...which also means you know the food is "real" Somali food. (For those who need some help, ladies's dining area is on the left, men's is on the right.)

                      I've never seen a menu there, just ask what's being served or for a recommendation. Get a glass of mango juice, and you will also be served a banana with your meal, as tvdxer noted. Break it up and mush it into your food (or be daintier and have it in bites with your's delicious!!

                      But, yes, a more accessible experience for those who aren't comfortable is Safari. It is indeed delicious and Jamal is very friendly. But you don't get a banana with your meal, so make sure you stop by the Produce Exchange first!

                    2. Katar River. possible high arsenic contamination in soil of property, but that will be abated by 2012. Point being, katar river by cub & rainbow off lake street, for somalian or ethiopian or whatever it is kind of food.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: msp007

                        In English, please.

                        Is the food good or not?

                        1. re: MSPD

                          honestly i don't know because i haven't been there yet, but they are advertising a spot on KFAI radio. ("fresh air community radio" 90.3fm minneapolis 106.7fm st. paul, "radio without boundaries.") i remember all the catch phrases because i like to listen to it, since its good programming unlike corporate radio. also, i believe the katar river restaurant and bakery provides injera to the seward coop. Here is a link to a nov. 2008 review of katar river restaurant & bakery:

                          again, i have no personal experience dining there but i intend to make it over there soon, because all indications are that it's worthwhile. and now that i reread that review, i can say for sure it's Ethiopian food. i know KFAI and the seward neighborhood are good community grassroots types of places, and i know there's strong somalian, eritrean, and ostensibly ethiopean immigrant populations in the nearby area, so those are the indications i referred to above.

                          1. re: msp007

                            I've eaten there; they have a small menu, but they do have all the usual Ethiopian dishes - Kitfo ($11), Tibs ($12), Doro Wat ($9), a vegetarian platter ($8), amongst others. I had the lamb Tibs which was very flavorful and a large serving. They have some interesting breakfast items, too. Very small and basic inside, but they have a really nice patio.

                            2751 Minnehaha Avenue

                            1. re: SmartCookie

                              Thanks. I had read the Secrets of the City bit a while back and that was the only think I had ever heard about the place. I stopped in to grab a menu and they were very friendly but haven't been able to get back...when I posted about it a couple months ago, nobody had much to say. I hope to get over there soon.