Located in the heart of East St. Paul, NL Oriental Food & Deli feels like returning to a Hmong kitchen. We chose this place to highlight Hmong cuisine because it is rumored to have the best papaya salad in the Twin Cities. NL Oriental Food & Deli has essential ingredients you need to make Southeast Asian cuisine, as well as aisles of Asian drinks and snacks. Even better, Hmong women run a delicious deli with fresh food daily. The chefs are personable, efficient, and have warm customer service.
Once you enter the store, you should beeline to the back left corner. Your eyes will immediately go straight to trays of hot Hmong sausage, pork belly, egg rolls, and stuffed chicken wings. In front of the warmer displays packaged steam rolls, fish, spring rolls, and ncuav (sticky rice patty). A whiteboard lists the extremely affordable menu. They also offer large party trays for events.
We chose the following dishes to sample: the special papaya salad, pork belly with sticky rice, stuffed chicken wings, Hmong sausage, and steam rolls. These items are staple foods sold at Hmong New Year and July 4th Freedom Festival.
Papaya salad was an explosion of flavors -- a sweet and sour tamarind base, splashes of lime juice, pungent and savory fish sauce, and spicy thai chili pepper. To make it "special," NL Oriental added vermicelli noodles, shrimp, naam sausage, and meatballs. The extra protein elevated layers and depth to this salad, making it a dish you can serve on its own.
NL Oriental's Special Papaya Salad stood out because of its unique incorporation of ingredients, as well as the spicy, tangy, crunchy, and fresh flavors. The juicy lime, tamarind, and thai chili peppers lit our mouths on fire - in the best way. From our perspective as frequent papaya salad consumers, this is the best papaya salad in the Twin Cities. This is not overmarketing on their end.
Stuffed chicken wings, unique to Hmong and Thai culture, are a labor intensive entree. At NL Oriental Food & Deli, the chefs stuffed the chicken wings with egg roll filling, which consisted of thin vermicelli noodles, cabbage, and black pepper. The orange crispy skin wrapped tightly around the fully stuffed wings. Although the vermicelli noodles overpowered the chicken meat, the dish has a beautiful presentation. When you bite into the stuffed chicken wing, it tastes like eating a chicken wing and an egg roll at the same time. The accompanying thai chili pepper sauce enhanced the savoriness of the stuffed chicken wings.
Glazed with red-orange marinade and perfectly-placed char marks, the pork belly looked perfect. The fat on the pork belly hardened into crunchy yellow and orange peaks. Admittedly, the pork belly was slightly dry - however, we did get the pork belly in the middle of the day, so that might have affected the moisture in the meat. Our taste buds were excited by the saltiness of the pork belly, which came out strong when combined with the thai chili pepper sauce. This dish paired perfectly with the chewy sticky rice, which had a light flavor.
Hmong sausage is a staple hot deli item that is commonly eaten in Hmong households and events. The sausage lacked crispy texture on the outside, but the fat and pork marbled in a perfect ratio on the inside. The ginger in the sausage stood out among the garlic, cilantro, and the onion. The thai chili pepper sauce brought an extra umami kick to the dish. The sticky rice balanced out the saltiness of the meat. Overall, this was excellent - there was a great ratio of fat to meat, it was chewy on the inside, and the herb mixture was a good complement to the sausage.
Garnished with green onions and filled with ground pork, the steam rolls were a simple, tasty dish that didn't overpower your tastebuds. It was a balancing item to eat in between all the spicy food mentioned above. The texture was sticky and smooth. The sauce (consisting of dry chili pepper flakes and fish sauce) added significant flavor to the steam rolls. Steam rolls are a good, neutral dish for people who don't like to venture into strong flavors all at once.
Overall, it is worth making a trip to NL Oriental Food & Deli for just the papaya salad. The consistent ingredient of thai chili peppers made the spicy experience worthwhile. NL Oriental Food & Deli is a great 2-in-1 place where you can shop for groceries and pick up your lunch on the go.