Yia Vang has done a 180 on hot sauce.
His mother’s own blend of roasted green chili peppers, garlic, shallots and fish sauce was an embarrassment in his lunch box, a particularly pungent condiment distinguishing him — a Hmong refugee — from the sea of white kids in his Wisconsin school.
Now, that hot sauce is the cornerstone of the Hmong cuisine coming out of a trailer parked outside Sociable Cider Werks in northeast Minneapolis, every day except Tuesday beginning at 5 p.m. (1500 Fillmore St. NE., Mpls., 612-758-0105, unionkitchenmn.com)
Vang is the co-founder of Union Kitchen, along with his cousin, Chris Her. Together, they are slinging Minnesotan takes on the food they grew up on — including Vang’s mother’s hot sauce.
The Union Kitchen residency in Sociable’s food trailer (they’ll be there for the next 6 to 9 months) is a step up from the company’s first iteration hosting pop-up dinners at restaurants around the Twin Cities. Vang views it as the pathway toward a brick-and-mortar restaurant of his own.
The way he sees it, Union Kitchen’s journey mirrors that of his community.
“We started like the Hmong people,” Vang said. “These wanderers, hopping from place to place.”
Vang was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and came to the United States in the late 1980s. For him and his family, food was the throughline keeping them connected to their culture, wherever they were.
“If you look at a group of people who don’t have a country of their own or a land of their own, the only thing they really have is their food, and that is the thing that passes down to their next generation,” he said.
One of seven kids, Vang didn’t start out liking to cook. He got a job as a dishwasher at a country club, and on event nights, he got to eat the leftover prime rib. That was an awakening. Now, 34, Vang has worked as a fishmonger for Coastal Seafoods, a pie-maker for Nighthawks Diner, and at high-end restaurants around town.
For Union Kitchen, he’s injecting his family’s cuisine with Minnesota flair, finding connections between the two. There are chips made of taro; a bahn mi hot dog with turmeric potato salad; and his famed MN Hmong Hotdish of tater tots swimming in red coconut curry.
“Hot dish comes from necessity,” Vang said. “You make it to feed a big crowd at church. Hmong food has always been about that.”
There’s also a cold vermicelli noodle salad, and chicken, steak or barbecue pork with purple sticky rice, all traditional Hmong dishes.
The menu is really an homage to his mother, Pang Vang (aka Mama Vang). She’s still making one of the two hot sauces that come out of that trailer.
“The way she’s taken care of us, the way she’s fed us, we get to reflect that to people here,” Vang said. “It’s us looking at our parents’ legacy.”