Local food lovers will recognize the name “Vinai” as the moniker of chef Yia Vang’s recently announced restaurant, slated to open at a to-be-determined-location by the end of the year.
But for Vang—and many in the Hmong community—the word “Vinai” means a lot more. From 1975 to 1992, Ban Vinai was a refugee camp in Thailand that housed up to 45,000 people, about 95 percent of them Hmong. It was where Vang was born, and where many Hmong found a sense of community and hope before emigrating to the United States.
“Vinai is more than a refuge. It’s a sense of home,” Vang explained to attendees on Tuesday at the launch party for the restaurant’s Kickstarter campaign. “With the restaurant, that’s what we want to do—make people feel at home.”
Vang has logged stints in some notable Twin Cities kitchens (Nighthawks, Borough, Spoon & Stable), but his cooking is also heavily influenced by his parents. His father taught him how to grill, and many of Vang’s dishes are based on what he learned from his mother. With Vinai, Vang hopes to introduce the diverse, vibrant cuisine of the Hmong community to a wider audience, while supporting local Hmong farmers via ingredient sourcing for the restaurant.
Why is Vang—an established presence in the Twin Cities dining scene thanks to pop-ups, residencies, and a TPT web series—relying on crowdfunding? According to the project’s Kickstarter page, the campaign will “allow Vinai to remain Hmong-owned and operated without relying solely on outside investors.” Funds raised will be put toward the restaurant’s wood-fired grill, and possibly an outdoor patio.
At the launch party, held at ABLE Seedhouse & Taproom on Tuesday evening, attendees were given a taste of the kinds of dishes Vang will serve at Vinai: pillowy wheat buns stuffed with ground pork and glass noodles; a noodle dish bursting with fresh mint and tangy pickled cucumbers; and naab vaam, a thick coconut dessert drink with rainbow-hued tapioca pearls. The Kickstarter page notes that Vinai’s menu will also feature large shareable courses like whole grilled fish, vegetable side dishes, and small plates. Vang also plans to have a “top notch bar program.”
If you missed out on the launch party, you can still get a taste of Vang’s cooking at a slew of fundraising events, including a collaborative dinner with chef Jorge Guzman at MidCity Kitchen on February 8; a pop-up hosted by Birchwood Cafe on February 22; and a pop-up at Alma on March 3. In the mood for a road trip? Vang will be taking over the menu at Milwaukee’s Braise Restaurant & Culinary School on February 25.
Vinai’s Kickstarter campaign runs through March 6, and as of press time donors had already pledged more than a third of its $75,000 goal. Rewards for backers range from a canvas tote bag at the $25 level to the chance to develop a Vinai menu item with Vang for a cool $5,000.