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Cook St. Paul's Friday pop-ups are revolutionizing Asian-American cooking

A modern take on the Korean classic Bi Bim Bap at Cook St. Paul.

A modern take on the Korean classic Bi Bim Bap at Cook St. Paul.

Every Friday night, Payne Avenue's tiny Cook St. Paul turns into a melee. Hopeful customers, sometimes hundreds at a time, snake around the neighboring blocks.

They've come for Korean bulgogi fries, a Filipino take on Chinese steamed buns, and Hmong fried rice with smoked trout.

On these Fridays, Eddie Wu, owner of Cook, throws open his doors and lets others take over his restaurant. It's a luxury Wu wishes he'd had before he opened Cook. "If [Cook] fails, everything in my life falls apart," he says. "I wish I would have had this [kind of an opportunity] before we opened."

By far the most popular nights are when the young Asian-fusion cooks come out to play.

"Minnesotans want Asian food, but they're too scared to go to Asian restaurants," says Wu.

It's impossible to take this proclamation without also taking into account Wu's infectious sense of humor and his love of all things Korean. As testament to this devotion, the white guy from South St. Paul made the ultimate new-age move, taking his wife Eve Wu's maiden name.

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He studied Korean cooking by apprenticing at Sole Café, a St. Paul institution, where he waited tables and hung out in the kitchen, absorbing all he could from chef Kimberly Firnstahl.

With a twinkle in his eye, he describes the fluorescent lighting at the cafe, the Korean soap operas blasting from televisions, the menus written in both English and Korean.

"Even though the English is still on there, you can see people start to sweat while looking down at that Korean writing." And then there's the issue of spice. When Minnesotans order spice, they're usually not thinking about Korean levels.

"When I went back into the kitchen and told Kimberly they wanted it spicy, she'd look down her glasses and say: 'Eddie-Ya, I'm going to kill them!'"

When he'd wait on non-Asian diners, he could sometimes see the look of relief. "It was like, 'Oh my God! Here's the white light throwing me a life saver!'

"I've traveled enough internationally to know what it feels like to not know what's going on around me," says Wu. Sole is light on atmosphere and service, not exactly designed with the non-Korean diner in mind.

At Cook, he's creating more of a "Venn diagram" for serving contemporary Asian, one where great food intersects with an accessible atmosphere.


He bought the place two years ago from Serlin's, a 35-year-old breakfast institution. Wanting to retain the customer base, he kept the short stacks, eggs, and hash browns. But he also snuck in Korean dishes like bi bim bap and yellow bean pancakes.

Yia Vang understands. His Union Hmong Kitchen recently served more than 200 customers at a pop-up at Cook. Having grown up in old-school restaurants, he's often driven crazy by the lack of modern hospitality in many Asian restaurants, though he understands it.

"It was about a different work ethic. A different time. It was about working really hard and quickly and turning tables. But still. I can't stand it when I see some faded picture of the Great Wall of China on a wall in a Hmong restaurant! I'm like, 'We're not even Chinese!'"

Having spent time in classic French technique kitchens like those at Spoon and Stable, Borough, and Haute Dish, Vang and his partner, Lang Vang, intend to bring high hospitality when they eventually open their own restaurant. After all, the spirit of sharing and bonding over food is imperative to Hmong cooking.

"There's a Hmong proverb: Brothers will even share a grain of rice."

The same goes for LolaRosa's, Cook pop-up favorites now serving as guest chefs at the Bedlam Theatre. They're a band of cousins and brothers specializing in Filipino food. And they realize old-school cooks are as hard on them as they are on the older generation.

If they tried to sell their brand of fusion to a strictly Filipino audience, it just wouldn't go. Filipinos are staunch traditionalists, they say. And every household thinks they make the very best food. Why go elsewhere? So LolaRosa's deals with this phenomenon by Americanizing.

In a dining landscape where a heavy value is placed on "authenticity," the term "Americanized" can almost seem pejorative. For LolaRosa's, it's an imperative.

"We call it Filipino for everybody. You're probably not going to find a traditional Filipino household putting chicken adobo over rice and then finishing it with purple cabbage and spicy aioli," says Krystal Calubayan, a server and host.

But that attitude has garnered a loyal following of pop-up guests, people who insist they will show up when they open their own restaurant sometime this year.

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Vang feels similarly confident about introducing a new audience to Hmong cooking. Despite the Twin Cities having the largest urban concentration of Hmong in the U.S. — around 80,000 — many locals know little about the cuisine.

After being ousted from China, the Hmong migrated to the mountains of Laos for refuge, then fled again to the refugee camps of Thailand. Their food tells the tale of this nomadism.

"Hmong is more of a philosophy of eating than kind of food," says Vang. It has to do with using what's available, and applying it to what you already know.

That makes Vang's approach to cooking feel natural. He plies his fried rice with smoked trout, roasted carrots, and parsnips for a Midwestern motif.


He's even convinced traditionalists to follow suit. His mom now uses a VitaMix instead of a mortar and pestle to make toasted rice powder.

"It used to take her two hours to make. Now it takes her two minutes," he says. "Sometimes the older generation has to take on the pupil role."

While these young people are fiercely committed to the cooking they grew up on, they're just as tethered to America.

"Our cooking is as American as it is anything. It starts out traditionally Asian, but by the time it goes through us, it's definitely something different," says Bunbob Chhun, who with partner James Munson runs Dumpling, a Pan Asian-American restaurant-in-the-making that has done pop-ups at Cook.

Take their beef stroganoff, which infuses the strong flavors of Bonito fish flakes and fish sauce instead of the more conventional wine and cream.

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The idea for Dumpling was born in their dorm from a hankering for organic and high-quality Chinese takeout. They aim for not just farm freshness and impeccable ingredients, but an attention to accessibility and hospitality that all of the pop-up kids dream about.

"We're not going to have 60 menu items," says Chhun, "We're going to have 16 great ones."

Their strength can be succinctly thought of as managing expectations, then usually exceeding them.

Wu now has a regular cast of very Minnesotan septuagenarians requesting the "rice salad." They're referring to the bi bim bap, Cook's take on the Korean favorite of rice topped with heavily seasoned vegetables and meat, and finished with a fried or poached egg.

He already knows to hold the hot sauce. 

Cook St. Paul, 1124 Payne Ave., St. Paul, 651-756-1787, cookstp.com

Dumpling Minneapolis, dumplingmpls.com

LolaRosa's Filipino Fusion, lolarosasmn.com

Union Hmong Kitchen, unionkitchenmn.com