Karen Vang of St. Paul gazes in the mirror at her elegant reflection. On a shopping trip to Hmongtown Marketplace in north Frogtown, she'd decided to try on a traditional New Year's dress, just for kicks. It looks divine on her, but she shakes her head when asked if she'll buy it.
"No, I'm married," says Vang. "This dress is for single girls. It says, 'I am out looking for a new guy.'"
Shop owner and seamstress Fuzhen Yang said it takes her flying fingers only two or three days to make one of the ornately decorated dresses lining the walls of her booth.
More than 200 merchants ply their wares, produce and authentic food dishes at this former lumber yard that now serves as supply central for St. Paul's sizable Hmong community. Day in, day out, they make up the majority of customers at this indoor/outdoor bazaar, recently called "America's best little-known ethnic market" in Food & Wine magazine. The sights, the smells, the lively chatter in an unfamiliar tongue can make other visitors feel they've just been transported via magic carpet to a Laotian village.
A nearby makeshift drugstore is crammed with exotic toiletries you'd never find at Walgreens. (The named-to-sell soap brand Virginity gives off a delicately flirty aroma.) At another shop, folk-art tapestries hang from the rafters, each one telling a story in vivid colors.
The not-to-be-missed farmers' market section brims with neatly stacked melons, tomatoes, greens and carrots, as well as bunches of lemongrass, lychees and bite-sized rambutan fruits, as sweet-tasting inside as they are hairy on the outside.
Don't say you'll never eat pig intestine until you've tried it here. Property owner Tuoa Xiong explains, "To the Hmong, a chicken breast is too dry. We like our meat closer to the bone." For the less adventurous palate, there's sausage and sticky rice.
Kayeng Thao specializes in making crispy-skinned roast pork for One Stop Restaurant. She says -- with Xiong interpreting -- that the trick is getting the fire hot enough to sear the skin just so.
"I'm glad to see someone eating it besides us," she says.