You can’t miss Yia Vang.
If you dine with any regularity around the Twin Cities, you’ll run into him somewhere. His food is always popping up at Lowry Hill Meats. Cook St. Paul. Birchwood Cafe. The Bird in Loring Park. The Good Acre. Dumpling in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild’s Winterfest. And that’s just in the last few months.
He stands out. Physically, for one, built like an All-Conference football player who decided on culinary school over college ball. In temperament, for another, beaming a smile that radiates through a crowd that’s clamoring for Lao sausage and sticky rice.
At this moment, he’s standing outside. In the most miserable conditions, when blankets of sleet are whipping horizontally against the bluffs above the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Yia hovers out of the wind, doting on skewers of shrimp that hiss and pop over a charcoal grill.
And so, trying to make mindless small talk, I ask a stupid question. A heavier question than it seems. A question he must get every day.
“When are you going to open a restaurant, Yia?”
“Man,” he shakes his head, probably thinking back on the countless hours he’s spent in his commissary kitchen over the last year, “I’m working on it. It’s hard!”
The subtext: I’ll have a restaurant when I have a concept, and enough money, and enough credit, and investors on top of that, and a space with a good landlord and not-outrageous rent, and a contractor with a renovation estimate, and a timeline, and a staff, and, and, and…
But what he goes on to admit: he’s still getting used to being so visible.
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Yia must have stood out growing up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, playing softball with the Amish and Mennonite kids. “We always thought we were normal, and the white kids were kind of the bullies. So we looked at the Amish kids like, ‘You look weird’ and they looked at us like, ‘No, you look weird’ and we were like, ‘Okay, let’s be friends.’”
All he wanted to do was blend in, be invisible, and eat white people food. He pushed his mom to learn how to make spaghetti and Prego. And if that went well, maybe one day he could convince her to pack a bologna and cheese sandwich for lunch. “You cut it, and open it up and see those perfect layers—man, that’s all I wanted.”
The lunch he’s packed today is a little more substantial. He covers a long table with several layers of banana leaves and lays a four-foot snake of purple sticky rice right down the center. He has several proteins, cooking or resting, ready to be heaped into a feast, the style of which is kamayan and has roots in Filipino cuisine.
But the food that gets piled on the sticky rice is a mix of Hmong, Thai, Latin, Middle Eastern and Midwestern, though spiritually, it might have roots somewhere back in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
“I’ve always liked cooking. In our house and in a lot of Hmong culture, the women would do the day-to-day cooking, but when it came to big feasts, the men would handle the proteins. About twice a month, we’d go out to an Amish farm and do our own butchering. Goats, lamb, but mostly pig. My dad would go early in the morning with a few people to get a 225-pound pig, they’d kill it, cut it into primals, and take it home. It looked so ‘Dexter’-ish in our garage, we’d set down plastic everywhere, and all these kids are carrying these body parts. He’d give us a boning knife and tell us to go at it. I was more comfortable with a boning knife at age 12 than I was at throwing a baseball.”
And the proteins for today’s feast have been expertly handled. He said he “didn’t have much time to prepare” for our lunch, so he offers only a meager spread of marinated skirt steak, braised lamb shanks and pork shoulder, Hamachi collars with a sweet chili glaze, roasted chicken, mounds of caramelized onions, beech mushrooms, pok pok slaw, and two kinds of homemade hot sauce.
And those shrimp. Blaze orange, head-on, dripping their juices, the crowning jewel of an impressive meal. There are no plates or silverware, we all sit down and just start grabbing. The room is suddenly quiet but for swigs of Coors Banquet and involuntary sounds of delight.
“Yeah, it’s no big deal,” he says, surveying the spread. This isn’t false humility. He just cobbled together whatever was in his commissary this morning.
Yia is casual. Not aloof, not disinterested, not unkempt. Just comfortable. He’s a T-shirt and sweatpants kind of guy. His girlfriend desperately wants him to wear a button-up shirt once in a while. But after years of trying not to stand out in Pennsylvania, and later in high school in rural Wisconsin, and now busting his ass to get his food in front of tons of people who might not understand it, peacocking is the last thing he’s apt to do.
Even if he knows better, or knows more, he’ll afford you the same courtesy. If you go to his cooking classes, he’s loathe to say the “right” way to build spring rolls or fold dumplings. You might obsess over creasing five exactly even folds into each gyoza. But Yia might just be content to press the wrapper into a lazy half-moon and toss it in the pan and appreciate the flavor of the dumpling instead of worrying about being beholden to a certain tradition or aesthetic or idea of what food should be.
“We get hardliners that come in and say ‘That’s not Hmong food,’ and I say, ‘Okay man!’”
It’s strange that by virtue of a menu full of purple rice and galangal that the Cities decided he’s a cultural interlocutor, because if he could make a living serving bologna sandwiches for people, he probably would. He’s just cooking, and not wearing a button-up shirt, and not caring if his food is Hmong enough for people, and he’s cool with that.
We try to make a dent in this mound of food and I’m wishing I had worn sweatpants instead of slacks and a belt. The banana leaves start leaking and the dog finds a pool of pork juice on the floor. We begin to barter. Who still has shrimp on their side of the table? Where’s that smoky red hot sauce? Meats are passed, messy hand to messy hand, and all these flavors and colors keep the punishing snowfall far from our minds.
And I think back to my first awkward question. And I think about the very visible Yia Vang, and the work it must take to give your food such visibility, and wonder why we feel the need to demand it in a certain way, as if a restaurant were fait accompli, gifted to a chef from on high after they reach enough Twitter mentions.
He’s already cooking his food and he’s comfortable. What does a restaurant matter?
Recipe for Yia Vang’s Grilled Shrimp
12 to 14 head-on whole shrimp (20–30 shrimp per pound weight)
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped ginger
1 tablespoon chopped lemongrass
1 teaspoon Korean chili flakes (gochugaru)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
¼ cup canola oil
With sharp kitchen scissors, cut along the back of the shrimp and remove the veins. Mix the rest of the ingredients together with the canola oil and marinate the shrimp. Place 3 or 4 to a skewer, and grill the shrimp over hot coals for about two minutes on each side.
Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.