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New York Times travel writer visits St. Paul – on purpose – and likes it

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When people around the country talk about Minneapolis-St. Paul, there's a good chance they're thinking of Minneapolis, not St. Paul.

And New York Times travel writer Lucas Peterson mentions this right upfront to justify an unusual decision: to purposely seek out the lesser-known twin and tell readers what St. Paul is like.

The verdict: he likes it.

Southeast Asian influence (and bargain prices)

Peterson gives props to a few other destinations and to the affordable prices, but the biggest piece of his story revolves around the influence of Hmong refugees and other Southeast Asian immigrants to St. Paul.

This includes a brief explanation of the Hmong exodus from Laos after Communist troops took control in 1975 and the challenges faced by those first immigrants to Minnesota.

Jai Vang, who arrived at age 8, said the struggles for early Hmong arrivals went beyond language:

 “People had never used toilets, never used telephones. They really had to be trained to adapt to society. I mean, reverse the roles: I take you and put you in the jungle. How are you going to adapt?"

Vang said the Frogtown neighborhood was an unsavory place in the '70s ("You couldn't walk around here .... You'd get beat up.") but he proceeded to offer a tour of today's many University Ave. businesses run by Moms & Pops of various ethnic groups.

Peterson especially enjoyed a green papaya salad at Hmongtown Marketplace and the shopping and food at the Hmong Village Shopping Center.

History, religion & tunes, too

The Minnesota History Center gets a mention as a good stop for kids, though Peterson prefers the free tour of the Cathedral of St. Paul (find the armchair version here). On Raymond Ave. there were visits to Barely Bros. Records and the Foxy Falafel.

But the honors for best food tasted in St. Paul went to the sour soup at Kolap Cambodian restaurant. The "powerfully tangy broth ... filled with big chunks of tilapia, pineapple and bitter melon" even came with another history lesson.

One of the restaurant's owners spoke with Peterson about his native Cambodia and the millions who perished in the killing fields there.

So, will a national write-up touting St. Paul's ethnic restaurants, marketplaces, century-old Cathedral, and 2-year-old record shop mean an influx of tourists to Minnesota's capital city?

We'll see, but it's possible all the attention from Adele's visit may do more to draw people – even from the better-known Twin City.

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