From abandoned homes to derelict storefronts, the story of St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood is too often told as one of industrial decline.
But in recent years, the area has seen the emergence of its very own “Eat Street”—an alternative restaurant strip for Twin Cities foodies looking for a taste of something novel. Fueled by investments by the city and community-focused entrepreneurs, establishments like COOK Saint Paul—featuring American brunch classics and Korean staples alike—are among the array of trendy but down-to-earth restaurants to pop up in the vicinity.
Payne-Phalen is more than St. Paul’s latest experiment in gentrification. As immigrants continue to pour into the Twin Cities, overwhelmingly from Asia, Payne-Phalen in particular is becoming more multicultural than ever. While the Hmong community laid down roots in the area decades ago, recent Karen refugees from the bordering region of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and Thailand have also found new homes here.
Today, St. Paul has the largest population of Karen people in the United States. And nestled in a corner of Arcade Street in the Original Karen Market and Deli, Irrawaddy Restaurant reveals this complex history of migration while bringing the bright and piquant palate of the delta region to the community.
Beyond the aisles stocked full of pan-Asian ingredients, the “restaurant” part of Irrawaddy comprises a single fridge and a few trays of hot food. Don’t be underwhelmed—although the offerings seem rather humble, the dishes up for grabs sing the flavors of Burmese and Karen cuisine, which is influenced by Chinese, Indian, and Thai food cultures alike.
Crispy okra pakoda (batter-fried vegetables), spicy shrimp chutney, rich goat curry, and succulent samosas brimming with well-seasoned potato form the colorful lineup, prepared fresh twice daily. With the foods laid out in the style of a bakery, at Irrawaddy you can select what you want—conveniently packed in plastic containers or ready to go in paper bags—before heading to the long wooden table in the middle.
Or, go straight to the check-out counter, and then feast wherever you please.
Even as more Karen refugees come to St. Paul looking to build new lives, Irrawaddy is one of the few places in the Twin Cities offering Burmese food. As the city looks to revamp the East Side, the humble and hidden Irrawaddy Restaurant and Grocery is a gem worth seeking out.
1377 Arcade St., St. Paul