Yia is currently the owner/chef of the James Beard-nominated restaurant Union Hmong Kitchen located in Graze Food Hall in North Loop Minneapolis specializing in Hmong cuisine. The stateless, nomadic community’s history reveals itself in its spicy, smoky, mouth-walloping cuisine, marrying influences from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Southern China. Union Hmong Kitchen started out years ago as a pop-up in his friend’s backyard where he was charging $5/plate. Its popularity led him to buy a trailer to sell his food and eventually a location at North Loop’s food hall. Though Minnesota is home to the largest diaspora of Hmong people living outside Asia, no brick-and-mortar restaurant has been exclusively dedicated to Hmong cuisine until Yia and his business partner, Dave Friedman, launched a Kickstarter campaign for Vinai, the Twin Cities’ first brick-and-mortar restaurant devoted to “the past, present, and future of Hmong cooking.” Vinai is named after one of the largest refugee camps in Thailand where Yia was born and where 90% of Hmong people ended up prior to moving to the Midwest after the Vietnam War. The ingredients will be sourced from Minnesota’s Hmong farmers and the restaurant will be filled with plants – a nod to Mama Vang’s green thumb. In the backyard will be a communal wood-fired grill – a fancier version of what Yia remembers tending alongside his dad at big family gatherings. His vision for Vinai is to create a home for his Hmong food that celebrates his parents’ legacy and tells his family story through food. The restaurant is slated to open in 2023 in Northern Minneapolis.
*Some of Chef Yia’s favorite recipes include Grilled Butterflied Chicken with Lemongrass Sauce, Coffee Rub Ribeye with Cowboy Chips and Grilled Vegetables, Smoked Pork Belly Hash with Grilled Vegetables and Duck Eggs, and Grilled Rainbow Trout with Herbed Salad and Fried Rice.z