Like living on the cusp of B.C. and A.D., chef Yia Vang’s forthcoming restaurant, Vinai, straddles two different eras.
Before the pandemic, Vang raised nearly $100,000 through a Kickstarter campaign and was a week away from signing a lease that would take his Union Hmong Kitchen from a trailer outside Sociable Cider Werks to its eventual brick-and-mortar home.
“Then it became this moment of triage,” he said, of March 16, when Gov. Tim Walz announced a temporary end to indoor dining to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Vang had to create a takeout program for a business that was intended to serve guests of a taproom that had suddenly gone dark. Opening a new sit-down restaurant was last on the list.
He wondered, would his dreams stay behind in the previous era?
He thought of his parents, the inspiration for the restaurant and his path as a chef.
“My mom and dad have faced a lot of adversity,” Vang said. “My father would always say, ‘You just have to work the problem.”
Vang worked the problem. Now, Vinai is back on track with a projected opening in spring 2021. The restaurant will take over an ivy-covered 3,100-square-foot brick office building in northeast Minneapolis’ Bottineau neighborhood (1717 NE. 2nd St.).
The location, partway between Ann Kim’s Young Joni and Christina Nguyen’s Hai Hai, puts Hmong cuisine at the center of a burgeoning “Asian row,” Vang said with a laugh. “It’s so amazing to be close to them,” he said. “I feel like that annoying little brother that’s like, ‘I want to play too, can I come play?’”
Named for the refugee camp in Thailand where Vang, 36, was born, Vinai is a “love letter to my parents,” Hmong immigrants who “taught me about grace, taught me about hope, and taught me to how to persevere,” he said.
As Hmong refugees crossed the Mekong River to flee Communist rule in Laos, trucks on the Thailand side of the river would sweep the refugees up and take them to Ban Vinai camp. Vang grew up viewing the camp as a “beacon of hope” for his family and community.
The restaurant, it turned out, also became a beacon for Vang through the coronavirus pandemic.
“We never intended to write it this way, but the story has unfolded and it parallels so much with the story of the Hmong people, the story of my mom and dad, the story of their struggle,” he said. “As a family, to go from the refugee camp and to come into this space, it’s like, greater things are yet to come.”
Construction will begin this fall, a full restaurant build out on a cubicle-lined footprint, with a patio and room for a garden for Vang’s mother in the back. The design, by Christian Dean Architecture, will nod to Hmong images and experiences — tiles that reference the ridged sides of the camp’s huts, an open kitchen, a large communal table. “Even if we can’t sit people there, that table is still a symbol that once this is over, we’ll come back together and eat together,” Vang said.
The food will expand upon Union Hmong Kitchen’s most popular dishes while incorporating the heritages of other cooks. “The heart of the Hmong people is being around different cultures and learning how to integrate that,” Vang said. “It’s building a stronger story.”
Customizable meals with a protein, rice and hot sauce will be the foundation, with meats coming off a wood-fire grill. Egg rolls, steamed buns, whole fish and more are in the works.
In creating the restaurant from the ground up, Vang and co-owner Dave Friedman have help in a Twin Cities restaurant veteran. Marshall Paulsen, the longtime chef of the Birchwood Cafe, recently left his post after 13 years and has joined Vinai in a management and operations role.
“I’ve always been in love with how Yia approaches food,” Paulsen said. “Hmong cuisine is not just a certain flavor combination or a cooking technique — it’s more about the attitude of the people who are cooking it, who they’re cooking it for, and who they’re eating it with. Bringing people together because of food was a big sell for me.”
Paulsen is also running Union Hmong Kitchen’s catering business, freeing up Vang to focus on other endeavors, such as hosting TPT’s web series, “Relish,” and launching a new food and culture podcast, “White on Rice.”
With recent features in national media, including the cover of Bon Appétit magazine, Vang’s profile is rising.
How does he do it all? “I don’t know,” he said. “If you squeeze it in, you’re fine.”
Being busy, after all, means the beacon of Vinai still lights Vang’s way. “Because of sacrifices my mom and dad made,” he said, “I had the privilege to dream.”