Every August, media swarm the State Fairgrounds armed with cameras and antacids, eager to try a menagerie of deep-fried and sugar-coated mediocre foods. Unbeknownst to many, the true highlight of outdoor summer eating comes in early July just a few miles away, when the Little Mekong Night Market and its stellar snacks take over St. Paul.
For the Little Mekong neighborhood—located between Mackubin and Galtier streets along University Avenue—this is a better State Fair. Here, everyone’s talents are showcased among neighbors and friends, while relatives catch up and summer flings canoodle.
This year marks the sixth annual Night Market—a unique event that’s equal parts small business incubator, block party, and tasting menu. The Asian Economic Development Association of Minnesota (AEDA-MN) started the event to boost local sales lagging due to Green Line construction.
As AEDA-MN’s events and project manager Evelyn Mouacheupao explains, “The light rail was being built in our neighborhood and we wanted to build something to invite people into the space and keep them coming here, so we decided to host this event. First it started in the parking lot as a pop-up. Now it’s grown to two full parking lots, down Western on both sides of University Avenue.”
Inspired by similar open-air markets in East and Southeast Asia where shoppers leisurely stroll, buy, and snack, the St. Paul version is a street festival for the community, by the community, with free admission since day one. The Night Market achieves its block party feel by catering to all ages. A court of bouncy castles provides space for roaming children to burn off their sugar buzz, while speakers boom local music between staged performances by traditional dance companies and breakdancing crews.
For many like me, the draw of the Night Market is its diversity of delicious snacks from food vendors—56 in total this year, from local supermarkets and established restaurants to food trucks and first-time vendors.
“We see ourselves as a space for entrepreneurs where they can start somewhere. We follow vendors to the next phase, be it food truck, trailer, or brick-and-mortar space,” says Mouacheupao.
Such a mix provides an incredible variety for eaters excited to experience new flavors, while also including vendors known for cranking out traditional favorites like green papaya salad and barbecue meat skewers.
Bummed that the Night Market’s delights passed you by? Don’t be. Additional pop-ups are coming, bringing many of these dishes to the public beyond this one weekend in July. Chroma Zone Mural and Art Festival will host the Night Market from September 7 through 14, and many of the Market's standout vendors can be found around town throughout the year. Below are some of the highlights from the night, to whet your appetite.
Iced Coffee at Soul Lao
Soul Lao imported organic coffee beans directly from the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos for this special batch of iced coffee. The beans lent a smooth, smoky flavor that was tempered by thick sweetened condensed milk. I sipped mine through a naturally biodegradable bamboo straw and was thumping until 3:30 a.m. soullao.com
MTKV Fortune barbecue skewers
The line at MTKV Fortune was already a dozen people deep only 20 minutes after the market started, so I immediately got in line, eyeing the packed charcoal grills. I chose boldly: two chicken heart skewers, a baby octopus skewer, and some sai krok sausages. Both skewers were doused in a hot sauce with lime, chile, and fish sauce, and ended up being some of the best barbecue items of the festival. The hearts were the size of my thumb tip and were pleasantly chewy and meaty, while the baby octopus offered some tender tentacles to munch on. The zippy sauce kept the skewers light and offered an acidic balance to the rich, meaty flavors. The sai krok sausages were stuffed with fermented ground pork, short grain rice, and cellophane noodles perfumed with lots of ginger. Cabbage leaves and Thai chilis were plopped on the side. I sandwiched the sausages between the leaves and dipped them in the hot, funky drippings from the skewers, which mixed well with the sausages’ intense ginger flavor. facebook/MTKV-Fortune.com
Sushi Laab Bowl at Ninja Sushi
After eating pork belly-smothered tater tots and a cheese-stuffed corn dog, the combination of fresh salmon and tuna chunks tossed in spicy-sour laab seasoning (lime juice, toasted rice powder, and dried chiles) and served over crunchy lettuce in a bowl was delightful. Each bite needed to be balanced with gulps of sweet Thai tea, but I couldn’t stop myself from digging in for more. Despite being filling, the lightness provided a perfect antidote to some of the market’s other sugary/fatty snack extremes. facebook.com/ninjasushimn
Vegan Papaya Salad at Miss Papaya
On a sweltering night, nothing’s better than an extra spicy plate of green papaya salad, so hot it makes sweat pulse, curling your mouth, and yet so good you couldn’t stop eating if someone paid you. Despite being one of the market’s culinary mainstays, I was surprised to see a vegan variation of the salad for sale, so I sidled up to the long line at Miss Papaya to give it a go. Green papaya salad normally features papaya strips, crushed roasted peanuts, chunks of tomato, bits of green beans, and Thai chiles pounded together, then dressed with fermented fish sauce. It’s an intensely laborious process, especially in the summer heat. Per custom, each salad is made to order with the cook providing customers a taste in case they want to tweak the balance of spice/acidity/sweetness. Without the pungent fish sauce, Miss Papaya’s vegan version allows the individual flavors to shine—the papaya’s sweetness, the smoky roasted nuts, and tart lime—into a new form like an intriguing cousin to the original dish. facebook.com/misspapaya
Blackberry basil cotton candy at Spinning Wylde
Most of the beverages I sipped throughout the night were very sweet, so by the time I got to Spinning Wylde, I was wary of even more sugar. Scanning the long list of flavors (Tamarind chile lime! Mama’s fried banana!), I chose blackberry basil. As the sugar silently spun into a white puff, then was topped with a cute cocktail umbrella, I became absolutely giddy. The first bite burst with juicy blackberry and a pleasant basil note, and I continued on my merry way, strolling through the market, pushing gobs of soft candy into my face. spinningwylde.com