(1) Hmong Market Food Court
I went here with a group of Chowhounders for an excellent guided tour by a friend of clepro's husband and a chowdown. The Hmong Market, gigantic but sometimes difficult to find (I found it immediately, however) is located across from some recreation fields on 217 Como Ave. After entering the expansive but often packed parking lot, one finds themself surrounded by several buildings, home to dozens of small vendors selling everything from Hmong music and videos to traditional handicrafts to Western clothing, as well as a large indoor / outdoor farmer's market type place.
The food court is located in the back of one of the buildings, and home to about seven or eight different vendors with names like "Thai Thai Daily", "Asian Special Drink", and "Mr. Papaya Kitchen". Dishes, which come in decent quantity though not always with rice, even when you expect it (as with curries), average out at $5, with some more and some less. I was able to sample, among several other things:
* Sqwab (pigeon!) with sticky rice - I've wanted to try pigeon for some time. Believe it or not, they were brought here early on by the ENGLISH to be bred for food. Fried sqwab (which I believe ours was) has a fried chicken taste. The meat : bone ratio didn't seem to favorable. Sauce accompanied it.
*Two curries - good, both I believe from Thai Thai Daily, but I didn't put them over rice, because I treated them like soup in the cup we were given. I think I would have enjoyed them more if I put them over the rice somebody got.
*Papaya salad - I usually hate salads of any sort, but this stuff was unlike anything I've had. It was good but mouth-searingly spicy, even at "medium". It left my lip burnt for a long time, requiring the purchase of another bubble tea.
*Fried tilapia - Some chowhounds from a different table were kindly sharing theirs with others. It was pretty good, but the bean dipping sauce (the real attraction IMO) was lost in the process.
*Bubble tea - I got two of these for myself, the first some "mocha" type flavor that was very good, and second something super-sugary that tasted like Kool-Aid my mom made yet with tapioca pearls in it. Delicious!
Most of the food was pretty good, though I admit I am not a huge fan of Hmong food. Must be the elevation that limits it to more simple rice and meat. I would have enjoyed the very good Thai curries more if I remembered to put them over rice :). Just not used to having soup / curries in cups...
For anybody wanting a true cultural experience, I strongly recommend the Hmong Market.
Environment: Loud, chaotic, and fascinating
Price: $5 for a typical meal
Parking: Extensive on-site. Gets very busy, hard to find your car. Amazing how almost all the cars there were Asian.
(2) Some Somali mall in West Bank
I happened to stumble upon a Somali mall in the West Bank neighborhood, something I'd been wanting to see but forgot to look up the location of. The two-story "mall", housed in one of the buildings along the street, was far more tranquil and empty than the bustling Hmong market, with small vendors selling a variety of traditional Somalian handicrafts, clothes, and trips to that country (yikes!) The aroma of incense filled the upper floor. The lower floor sported the mall's only food vendor, a tiny little operation selling what looked like croissants and samosas for $1 apiece. I bought one of the dollar samosas and was pleased with the size. An older Somali man came over with a big smile and asked me if I "knew what that was" and I said "a samosa" and he then laughed and said "Yes, yes!", excited I was aware of that element of their culture. The flavor / texture was acceptable but not exceptional, perhaps a bit compromised in the microwave oven he used to cook it up. The room was otherwise filled with young Somali men watching soccer on a TV.
Environment: Adventurous if you're not Somali, maybe good for soccer fans
Price: $1 samosas
Parking: On-street ?
(3) Bombay 2 Deli
Well known to MSP Chowhounders, this is a small snack / curry bar located in between two Indian grocery stores. The menu is filled with Indian junk food delights like vada pav and bhel puri, as well as healthier curries, a rotating three of which are available each day. I opted for a vada pav, which I had read about and wanted to try, and the bhel puri, but the kind and cute Indian woman at the counter recommended I had the samosa chaat instead - something I don't regret. It was absolutely delicious, filled with flavor and unlike anything I've had before - the ultimate snack food. The vada pav, kind of like a vegetarian Indian burger with potato and assorted ingredients replacing the beef, was not nearly as good, though I don't blame Bombay 2 for this - this was my first time having it.
Price: $4.99 curries, snacks typically $2 - $4. My two filling snacks came to a little over $5.
Environment: Snack bar with limited seating.
Parking: Behind the building or on-street.
(4) Tam Tam's African Restaurant
My final dining option at 9:30 pm, before heading back, Tam Tam's is a small establishment run by Ugandan immigrant Stephen Kaggwa. Having seen his picture on the internet in a newspaper article about the restaurant, I immediately recognized him (or somebody who bore a resemblance to him). Whatever the case, I hope the restaurant stays in business, because the service was immaculate, from start to finish. I ordered "Tam Tam's Stew" with ugali, a type of cornmeal mush, similar to polenta or fufu, popular throughout southern Africa. He recommended I split it up with something else (included in the price), partly because of "the hour", so I got chapatis too. Within about ten or fifteen minutes, two bowls arrived, one containing the stew and the other a dish of greens, chapati, and ugali. The stew was hearty and decent but nothing special - perhaps this was because I wasn't very hungry yet, due to haven eaten so many things hours earlier. The chapati was very good, but the highlight was the ugali. Not that the ugali had much flavor - as far as I know it isn't supposed to, being used to scoop up stew. What's special about it is that I could find it in Minneapolis. Thank you Tam Tam's for allowing me to try a hard-to-find southern African food in MINNESOTA. Finishing up the meal, the waiter (owner?) asked me if the "greens weren't much of a hit", not having eaten them, and I said I just don't like them in general, and he said "I should have replaced them with something else". I told him he already gave me plenty to eat - and he did. I was full after leaving this place.
Again, the service was among the best I've ever gotten, extremely attentive, and this guy really seemed to enjoy this restaurant operation. The only other customers were a group of Somali men having a leisurely tea night, my waiter joking with them, calling one the "Vice President of Mogadishu". I strongly recommend this place, with its excellent service and pan-African menu, and hope it stays in business, because it certainly deserves to.
Price: $11.99 for the stew, greens, chapati, and ugali (large portion).
Environment: Dimly lit (in a good way), various African-theme decorations, suitable for a date.
Parking: Behind the building or on-street.