Diverse Communities Enrich Minnesota Culture

By James Riemermann

Friends take a selfie at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Friends take a selfie together at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis

Minnesota has long been a melting pot of cultures. From the Dakota and Ojibwe, to the Swedes, to the state's Hmong, Somali and Mexican communities, every wave of newcomers makes Minnesota culture richer and more diverse. During your visit, be sure to explore the many diverse 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 such a place 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.

Hmong Make Their Mark on Minnesota

Yia Vang leads a Union Kitchen cooking class at The Good Acre
Union Kitchen offers Hmong cooking classes around town / Photo by TJ Turner

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.

To dive deeper into the food and stories of Hmong culture, check out the "pop-up” Hmong restaurant Union Kitchen. Like the traditionally nomadic Hmong people, Union Kitchen doesn’t have a space of its own. Instead, they host kitchen takeovers at local restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and offer private cooking classes by request. Lately they've been posted up at Sociable Cider Werks in Northeast Minneapolis, but be sure to check their website for up-to-date information about where to find Union.

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 Union’s uniquely local take on larb (pronounced “laab” or “laap”), the unofficial national dish of Laos and a staple of many Hmong kitchens. Union originally served a more traditional beef version of the dish, but Vang says that lately—inspired by Minnesota harvests and customer requests for vegetarian options—they’ve “been dorking out on roasted beet larb.” Moreover, as evidenced by Union’s now-infamous Hmong Hotdish, the cultural exchange goes both ways.

Somali Community Enriches Minneapolis

Somali Dance Troupe members at Somali Independence Day
Somali dancers celebrate Somali Independence Day in Minneapolis / Photo by Somali Museum of Minnesota

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.

Considered North America's first Somali mall, another must-visit destination is the Karmel Mall near Uptown. 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 at across Minneapolis, but a special nod goes toward 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.

Minnesota Offers a Taste of Mexico

Various Mexican dishes at Centro at Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh cooks some of the more upscale Mexican food in Minneapolis / Photo by Kevin Kramer

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 Popol Vuh, 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 El Nuevo Rodeo on Lake Street, or head over to La Doña Cervecería—Minnesota's first Latino-owned brewery—for salsa dancing every Saturday night.