Unassuming and tucked neatly behind an apartment complex, the Hmongtown Marketplace in Saint Paul is not the sort of place one would stumble upon. Thanks to an anthropology class assignment to visit and take notes on a local market and the rapidly approaching spring break, this hidden gem quickly rose to the top of my “to do” list.
The marketplace, while a bit of a trek from Macalester’s campus, is very easy to get to. A quick ride on the 84 to University took me and my two fellow classmates to the Green Line where we rode towards downtown Saint Paul and got off at the Capitol/Rice Street station. From there it was no more than a five-minute walk until we reached the large maroon sign that welcomed us to the marketplace. Although Google Maps took us door to door, for first time visitors it can be a little tricky to find — the journey is worth it though — as delicious and affordable food is just around the corner.
The Hmongtown Marketplace is a huge complex. Comprised of numerous buildings and an outdoor area, it is open every day, year round. Somewhat empty on a winter’s Sunday, we spent some time exploring the clothing, beauty products and produce that were available, before making our way to the food court. For a day with relatively few people, the food court-esque area was packed with people. Families with small children, teenagers and a few other nervous newcomers like us filled the room. There were a handful of food vendors, the majority of them selling a variation of what seemed like a set menu: many different takes on phó, a multitude of incredible looking fried meat, fried rice, sticky rice and bananas and my favorite, fresh spring rolls.
As it was impossible to decide on one thing each, the three of us decided to treat ourselves to a feast. We bought a premade plate of three fresh spring rolls ($3 for all three), a premade plate of sticky rice and bananas, each one wrapped in a banana leaf ($4 for all three) and a giant bowl of spicy phó, complete with chicken, noodles, mint leaves and shredded cabbage ($5).
The spring rolls were incredible. Measuring around five inches long, they were definitely the most sustainable spring rolls I have ever seen. Each one was jam packed with pork, shrimp, rice noodles, carrots and mint, and they were accompanied by a generous serving of a delicious and unidentifiable dipping sauce. The steamed sticky rice cakes were also delicious. A popular quick snack in Laos, the warm patties of sticky rice are wrapped around a slice of banana and then the entire treat is encased within a banana leaf. I have had this dish before from corporate supermarkets in the past, and let me tell you, nothing has ever come close to matching the Hmongtown Marketplace rendition. Warm, sweet and oh so cheap, the rice cakes were definitely the highlight of the meal for me.
Finally we had a massive bowl of phó. As we all had the beginnings of that winter-to-spring transition cold, we tried to be clever and asked for an extra bowl. But seeing that huge, steaming bowl of freshly-made soup in front of us may have made us temporarily germ-blind for, before long, two of the three of us were slurping straight out of the same heaping pile of noodles. The broth was spicy, which was unexpected but a great complement to the chicken and noodles which were more on the simple side of the flavor spectrum. Overall, it was a messy yet incredibly tasty bowl of phó, and the fact that it was only $5 made it that much better.
For a grand total of $12 between three people, the meal was delicious and left us with happy stomachs and the need to nap.
Not ready to give in so quickly, though, we made our way back through the crowd and waited in line for what we were told was one of the culinary highlights of the market, the $3 bubble tea. Luckily by this time we had missed the peak of the lunch time rush and only had to wait a few minutes to place our orders. Choosing from a giant menu of pictures wrapped around the side of the stall, we each settled on a flavor: strawberry, strawberry and cranberry and passion fruit and mango. As someone who is not the biggest fan of tapioca and has not had bubble tea for this reason since middle school, I was skeptical to say the least. But the smoothie, a little too sweet, was overall delicious and the tapioca balls were far better than I remembered.
Although we originally set out to the Hmongtown Marketplace for the purpose of completing a homework assignment, we left with much more than notes and paper ideas. The lunch we ate and the bubble tea we drank were some of the best food that I have had since being back at Macalester this year, and to top it all off was some of the most affordable food as well.
Seemingly far away, the Hmongtown Marketplace is a quick jaunt on the 84 and the Green Line and is definitely worth the trip, especially when the outdoor market starts up in the summer months. For anyone looking for a great outing, a delicious and filling lunch and an adventure into a new part of Saint Paul, take my advice and head down to Hmongtown Marketplace, you will not be disappointed.
The Hmongtown Marketplace is located at 217 Como Ave, St Paul.
Hours: Every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.