There’s an intriguing cheeseburger on the menu of chef Yia Vang’s new pop-up, Mee-Ka. At first glance, it looks like a typical smash burger, its two thin patties blanketed with American cheese. But a first bite reveals its nuances: a tangy layer of fermented radishes, nutty flavor from toasted rice flour that’s mixed into the beef, and a smear of hot ranch sauce on the underside of the bun.
Mee-Ka is devoted to what Vang (and others) call “third culture” cuisine — food that combines both Hmong and American ingredients and themes to create a distinct third cuisine. (What better template for this kind of melding than the quintessential cheeseburger?) Mee-Ka also features spaghetti and meatballs, pork katsu sandwiches, and more. It’s the second pop-up, after Slurp, Vang has launched out of his Hilltribe space on Lake Street, which is proving to be a platform for his gutsiest, most creative dishes.
“I personally was a little bit nervous about this,” says Vang. “We’re really used to sticking to quote-unquote ‘classical Hmong dishes.’ This is something that’s been brewing up in me for the last year and a half — how do we talk to people about how we live in both worlds?”
“Mee-ka” is a Hmong word for American. Many of the pop-up’s dishes draw on memories from Vang’s childhood — every evening, he says, his mother would ask if he and his siblings wanted to eat Hmong food or Mee-ka food, for which she’d cobble together typical American dishes with an assortment of Hmong ingredients. In addition to the smash burger, Mee-ka’s menu features a thin-sliced pork katsu sandwich; spaghetti and meatballs made with ramen noodles, Hmong sausage meatballs, and a red sauce with shrimp paste base; and a Cobb larb salad. Vang even put meatloaf on the menu, a Stouffer’s homage that’s dressed with oyster sauce ketchup and served with rice and sauteed mustard greens instead of mashed potatoes.
He’s quick to note, though, that this isn’t fusion — it’s “forging.” “Fusion to me is like, ‘Hey, I like this, and I like this, let’s put it together,” says Vang. “Here’s what I mean when I say forging. When my mom made us pasta and meatballs with Hmong sausage, it wasn’t because she was trying to create something new. It’s all that she had. That’s very, very important. That’s the difference between fusion and forging: If this is all we have, how do we forge it together?”
Vang has already earned a James Beard nomination for his succinct menu of zoo siab meals and whole fried fish at Union Hmong Kitchen. But with plans for his forthcoming restaurant, Vinai, still in the works, Hilltribe — the same space where his team prepped nine tons of sweet rice for the state fair last summer — has become a platform for some of his most exciting work.
The pop-up format provides versatility, for one. “If it’s not working, then we have a new concept coming up in two months, ” says Vang. It allows him to experiment with dishes that might not otherwise appear on the menu at Union Hmong Kitchen or Vinai — but that, in their creativity, are expanding and redefining the presence of Hmong food in the local culinary world. Hmong cuisine is still fairly underrepresented in the Twin Cities restaurant scene (though this continues to change) and whether it’s Slurp’s guinea fowl khao poon or Mee-Ka’s spaghetti and meatballs, Vang’s translations of his family’s dishes into a restaurant format are among the Twin Cities’ most game-changing endeavors at the moment.
Mee-Ka is open Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. starting this Wednesday, March 29. Reservations are not available, but takeout is.