University Avenue is full of Asian restaurants, especially along the stretch that’s known as Little Mekong, from Mackubin to Galtier streets. I have lots of favorites along that stretch, but the special, warm feeling I get from eating at Cheng Heng, the Cambodian restaurant on University Avenue in St. Paul goes beyond the spiciness of some of the cuisine. Maybe it’s the friendliness with which customers are greeted. Or maybe it’s knowing that the owners, Kunrath and Kevin Lam, have donated some of the earnings from their restaurant to build schools back in Cambodia. But mainly it’s the cuisine. Although there are many resemblances to Vietnamese and especially Thai cuisine, there are also enough differences to make for a refreshing change of pace.
I happened to stop by at Cheng Heng a couple of times recently, where I had a chance to try several dishes from their menu that I had never tasted before – dense and savory pan-fried sticky rice dumplings filled with chives ($4.50), a pungent, not-too-spicy green papaya salad with salted crab ($4.95); and pahok ktiss, a bowl of ground pork in a savory curry sauce, served with steamed rice and a plate of raw vegetables for dipping ($7.95). Also superb was the curried fish (ho mok, $8.95), a custard of minced fish with coconut milk, kafir lime leaf, lemongrass and Chinese broccoli, steamed in a banana leaf and topped with shrimp. A similar dish is offered as an appetizer on some local Thai restaurant menus, but Cheng Heng’s version is more substantial, and much livelier.
If you haven’t been to Cheng Heng recently, this is a good time to go – a sign near the door reminds customers of the challenges that all local businesses face during the construction of the light rail line along University Avenue:
Dear Cheng Heng’s Valuable Customers,
As you may know, the light rail construction is coming closer, and some businesses might not survive it. We just want to thank our dedicated customers who continue to support our establishment, it truly amazes us. We have gained many friends through this business and we would like to continue to serve you during the tough construction, we hope you continue to come.
Cheng Heng Staff
Ar this point, it looks like Cheng Heng has the worst of the construction turmoil behind it. The work along the adjacent section of University Ave. seems to be nearly complete, and the block Cheng Heng is on is one of the few that currently has on-street parking on the south side of the Avenue, as well as a parking lot right next to the restaurant. Definitely worth a visit.
papaya salad with salted crab
pahtok kiss, ground pork in a dipping sauce with raw veggies
curried fish hoh mok, steamed fish custard in banana leaf