Nothing makes a person appreciate summer like living in one of the coldest states in America. While Minnesotans embrace sub-zero temps, there is a palpable sense of jubilation when the ice begins to thaw. Shorts come out, windows roll down, and locals head to Union Hmong Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant housed in a trailer outside Sociable Cider Werks in Minneapolis.
That’s where Yia Vang works his wood-fired magic, churning out char-grilled, chili-lashed fare typical of Hmong recipes. (Minnesota is home to the largest diaspora of Hmong people living outside Asia. The stateless, nomadic community’s history reveals itself in its spicy, smoky, mouth-walloping cuisine, marrying influences from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Southern China.)
Vang, who was born in a Thai refugee camp but moved with his family to St. Paul when he was 5, cooks over ember year-round. But summer holds a special place in his heart. “Growing up, summer was about fire in the backyard,” he says, “and being barefoot, and the smell of fresh-cut grass, and weekends filled with parties at cousins’ houses. The women and girls would be in the kitchen making egg rolls and steamed buns, while the men and boys were in the back grilling. If I was lucky, my father might hand me a piece of meat to taste and I’d think, ‘Oh, wow, okay! Now I’m one of the guys.’”
Though Vang is the one at the grill these days—and prepping for the launch of his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Vinai—there’s still no smell he loves more than that of hot summer char. “That smell is a badge of honor,” he says, “because it’s a reflection of my father.”
Here, some of his favorite Hmong recipes.