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Storytelling & Barbeque Converge at Vinai

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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

Storytelling & Barbeque Converge at Vinai

By Aegor Ray

It has always been easy to root for chef Yia Vang. His magnanimity and skill on the grill make his rotating pop-up restaurant, Union Hmong Kitchen, one of the most memorable eating experiences in Minnesota, and for the past several years, I’ve delighted in tasting my way across their ever-changing menu.

Scrolling through their delectable food announcements on social media became a cherished weekly routine, regularly prodding me to seek out their latest temporary location for another taste.

I’ve planned weekend excursions in subzero temperatures to slurp up bowls of long-simmered khao poon or trumpet mushroom congee. During the summer months, nothing complements long days in the sun like Chef Vang’s sweet and spicy papaya salad or honey-tamarind barbecue pork.  

But after five years of running Union Hmong Kitchen as a pop-up, Chef Vang will open his very own brick-and-mortar restaurant this spring in Northeast Minneapolis: Vinai (pronounced vee-nye).

Chef Yia Vang stands proudly in front of his new restaurant, Vinai

Chef Yia Vang poses in front of Vinai in Northeast Minneapolis / Lauren Cutshall

There’s a delighted glimmer in his eyes as Chef Vang speaks about his upcoming restaurant. “With Vinai, I’m not trying to fight for Hmong food to be a part of the conversation. I’m saying it’s already a part of the conversation.”

Vinai is named for the refugee camp in Thailand where Chef Vang’s parents met and where he was born, Ban Vinai. After toying around with different names, he settled on one that he felt could carry both the history and future of Hmong cuisine. “For a lot of people who had just escaped Laos, Vinai was a symbol of hope,” Vang explains.

Now, on the verge of opening his own space, it feels like all of Minnesota is invited to celebrate Chef Vang’s long-anticipated, hope-filled homecoming, and it’s clear he wants Minnesotans to feel the love. 

Telling Cultural Stories Across Generations & Geographies

Even before Vinai, Chef Vang was already a Minnesota food celebrity.

He’s been profiled by national publications like Bon Appetit and National Geographic, featured on basically every Minnesota-based morning show, and even hosts his own TPT original series, Relish.

Each episode of Relish features a different local chef who talks shop with Vang while cooking a meal with significant personal and cultural meaning, often a cherished family recipe. These conversations joyfully explore the ways food and culture intersect across generations and geographies, coloring in unknown corners of our world with the flavors that make us who we are.

On a recent episode, Chef Vang visits Chef Nettie Colón’s backyard kitchen to cook her Puerto Rican grandmother’s Fricasé de Pollo. The tart, buttery chicken stew comes together beautifully in Chef Colón’s outdoor fire pit grill and is reminiscent of Vang’s own deeply flavored, wood-fired braises. As the two chefs cook, they share bits and pieces of the culinary legacies they’ve inherited from all over the world—now meeting in a Minnesota backyard. 

Chef Vang’s food contains those big stories about people and land and all the little ones, too: the laughter around a table or a bonfire, friends and strangers becoming closer, bite by bite.

Vang is attentive to the nuances of geography and history and does not himself claim to have invented anything new. These relationships between people, land and food are as old as time. But as a gifted storyteller and chef, he’s well-suited to lead the conversation about how those age-old relationships remain vital today.

A whole fish being grilled over an open flame

Grilling a whole fish over an open flame at Vinai / Eliesa Johnson/The Restaurant Project

Understanding Hmong Culture & Migration Through Food

When telling his own story, Chef Vang stresses that Hmong people have survived by learning to cultivate and adapt their culinary traditions to whatever ground they’ve landed on. “No matter where we go, our cultural DNA is woven into our food,” Chef Vang says.

As nomadic people, the Hmong community adopted ingredients and cooking techniques from Vietnam, China and Thailand, and their migration to Minnesota has enriched the state’s culinary palette in practically infinite ways. And since arriving as refugees in 1975, Hmong people have been integral to establishing the Twin Cities as a boast-worthy destination for incredible Southeast Asian restaurants.

In Minnesota, where seasons are marked by hot, muggy summers and parka-worthy winters, Hmong food offers both refreshment and respite. Most dishes are either cooked over an open fire or stewed and braised in a pot. The communal aspect of open-fire cooking in the summer is a means of sharing stories, and in the winter, stews and rice porridge are a source of hearty sustenance through the cold. 

A family-style plate of Khao Sen being passed between two friends

At Vinai, family-style dishes are meant to be shared / Eliesa Johnson/The Restaurant Project

It All Comes Together at Vinai

With Vinai, Chef Vang hopes to imbue his mouth-watering meals with the spirit of generosity and love that he’s known, all his life, from his parents. “I actually sat down when I was coming up with the restaurant and wrote my parents a love letter,” he says. “Three things came up: redemption, unconditional love and grace.”

These principles are foundational to Chef Vang’s vision and are built into everything from the traditional open-fire cooking techniques used to grill meat to crispy perfection to the name of the restaurant itself.

With family-style dishes and kamayan feasts meant for gatherings, a meal at Vinai promises to become an unforgettable event.

One led by Chef Vang’s generosity, where guests are invited to slow down, take everything in with their senses and really get to know one another.

Savory, unctuous cuts of barbecue pork stippled with fresh pickles and rolled into sticky rice or a leaf of charred cabbage. Lush greens or wafer-thin taro chips stretch out the meatier bites. The flavors are bright and umami rich. Seconds quickly turn into thirds. You’ll easily find a hearty meal that sticks to your ribs, a gluten-free and protein-packed snack, or a romantic centerpiece of grilled fish that extends the eating experience for hours.

What a beautiful conversation to be had.

Chef Yia Vang stands at a table in a campground facing a clay pot grill with roasting jalapeños on its surface

Yia Vang roasts jalapeño peppers over a clay pot grill to prepare his Swordfish Tacos with Jalapeño Crema Slaw recipe

More From Yia Vang

Before ending our conversation, I asked Chef Vang for a couple hip tips on his favorite Twin Cities restaurants. With refreshing takes on comforting favorites like cheeseburgers and pho, these restaurants are bound to become standbys in your repertoire. Or get your fire-roasted food fix with Chef Vang in Explore Minnesota’s new video and recipe series, The Culinary Campfire.

Aegor Ray

Aegor Ray is a writer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.