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Diverse Communities Make Minnesota Great

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Friends take a selfie together at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden just south of downtown

Diverse Communities Make Minnesota Great

By James Riemermann

Minnesota has long been a melting pot of cultures. From the Dakota and Ojibwe, to the Swedes, to the Hmong, Somalis and Mexicans, the newcomers to Minnesota have made the state's culture richer and more diverse. During your visit, be sure to explore the many different communities that make Minnesota unique.

Over the past thirty years, newer immigrant and refugee groups—particularly Hmong, Somali and Mexican populations—have brought distinctive and exciting foods, music, art, handiwork and more to the region. Of course, Minnesota’s American Indian communities had a complex culture long before the rest of the world knew they existed, and African Americans, Europeans and others have been shaping Minnesota’s culture since before it was a state.

One of the best places to get a taste of many of these cultures, all at once, is Midtown Global Market on Lake Street in Minneapolis. This indoor market and meeting place is filled with a broad, family-friendly variety of ethnic dishes, gifts and groceries, from Mexican and Middle Eastern to Vietnamese, Indian, Swedish and Italian. Several of the food stands are outlets for full-service restaurants elsewhere in the Twin Cities.

A family-style feast of Khao Sen, grilled bronzini, roasted squash, purple sticky rice and more

A family-style feast at Vinai featuring Khao Sen, grilled bronzini, roasted squash, purple sticky rice, Mama Vang's hot sauce and more / Eliesa Johnson/The Restaurant Project

Hmong Make Their Mark on Minnesota

More than 100,000 Hmong refugees settled in the Upper Midwest following Laos' extended civil war. Many settled in St. Paul, now the heart of Minnesota’s Hmong community and home to the largest urban concentration of Hmong people in the country. Many Hmong and Vietnamese restaurants and shops are located in the Frogtown neighborhood, on and around University and Lexington avenues.

For a taste of Hmong culture, head to the Hmongtown Marketplace on Como. The indoor marketplace features over 100 vendors serving traditional larb, locally grown Asian produce, papaya salad, bubble tea and so much more. In the summer, the food court expands to include outdoor vendors. Hmong Village, on the city's East Side, is a similarly massive Hmong market.

as evidenced by Union’s now-famous Hmong Hotdish, the cultural exchange goes both ways

To dive deeper into the food and stories of Hmong culture, check out the "pop-up” Hmong restaurant Union Kitchen or its soon-to-open sibling, Vinai—both run by esteemed local chef, Yia Vang. Like all nomadic cultures, the flavors found in Hmong cuisine don’t tell the story of one place, but many. For just one example, look at Vang's uniquely local take on larb (pronounced “laab” or “laap”), the unofficial national dish of Laos and a staple of many Hmong kitchens. Vang originally served a more traditional beef version of the dish, but customer requests for vegetarian options plus ongoing inspiration from Minnesota harvests led him to, “dork out on roasted beet larb.” Moreover, as evidenced by Union’s now-famous Hmong Hotdish, the cultural exchange goes both ways.

Two Somali dancers laughing

Somali dancers celebrating Somali Independence Day in Minneapolis / Somali Museum of Minnesota

Somali Community Enriches Minneapolis

Minnesota’s Somali community began its growth in the early 1990s as refugees fled civil war in Somalia, with the largest concentrations of residents settling in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and along East Lake Street.

For a crash course in Somali culture, head to the Somali Museum of Minnesota on East Lake Street. Exhibits cover a wide range of Somali history, from nomadic Somali culture all the way through contemporary Somali life. The gallery spans just five or six curated rooms, but despite its modest size, it remains the largest (and only) operational Somali history museum in the world. The museum’s collection of cultural artifacts, paintings and sculptures consists of over 700 pieces, and the museum’s expert tour guides are happy to describe and contextualize each of them during your visit.

The Karmel Mall near Uptown is considered to be North America's first Somali mall and is another must-visit destination. The bustling indoor mall contains dozens of Somali-run businesses, from restaurants and cafes to clothing chops and henna parlors.

Other outlets for Somali and East African culture can be found across Minneapolis, but a special nod goes to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood just east of downtown. This small but thriving neighborhood has always been a hub for immigrants—from Swedes to Somalis—and remains a mixing pot of East African communities, punks, performing venues and two college campuses.

Get a Taste of Mexico in Minnesota

The first significant Mexican immigration to Minnesota goes back to the 1900s, and until the 1990s was concentrated mostly on St. Paul’s West Side and the city of West St. Paul. In West St. Paul, check out the restaurants, shops and markets along Cesar Chavez Street, as well as Robert Street. El Burrito Mercado on Cesar Chavez Street is a standout, as is Boca Chica, at 50 years the oldest Mexican restaurant in the Twin Cities.

However, the West Side of St. Paul is no longer the only part of town with significant Mexican and Latino communities. In South Minneapolis, portions of East Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue are both home to large Mexican and Latino communities, along with Central Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis.

Restaurant options range from modest but delicious neighborhood joints like El Taco Riendo, La Alborada and La Loma Tamales to trendy upscale eateries like Martina, Colita, Boludo and Cafe Ena. You'll also find great Ecuadorian food at places like Chimborazo and Los Andes.

For exuberant Latin live music and dancing, check out La Doña Cervecería—Minnesota's first Latino-owned brewery—for salsa dancing every Saturday night.

James Riemermann

James Riemermann is a retired writer and editor. Raised in St. Paul, he's a city boy who feels more at home in the woods. Sitting by a campfire on the shore of a quiet north woods lake is his idea of paradise.