Green Line Checklist: Family Lao Thai to Cheng Heng
Of the 15 restaurants we’ve visited so far, 14 have been Asian. And we’d be lying if we said we aren’t having a hard time keeping track of them all. The names aren’t helping, either. You try distinguishing Royal Bangkok from Bangkok Thai Deli from Thai Cafe from Thai Garden. Now try remembering one from the other, when they’re all within a four block radius. Thankfully, we have visual references to help us sort them out.
But don’t get lulled into thinking all these places are the same. Not by a long shot. Each restaurant is unique in a way their names don’t suggest.
For this installment, we followed the Green Line through Southeast Asia, from China to Laos to Thailand to Vietnam to Cambodia. And whether it was in atmosphere or attitude or variations on flavors, each spot we visited managed to bring something completely different to the table. — M.C. Cronin
ALL 15 GREEN LINE INSTALLMENTS: 88 Oriental Foods to Thai Cafe, Ha Tien Deli to Hook Fish and Chicken, Family Lao Thai to Cheng Heng, iPho by Saigon to Los Ocampo, SugaRush to PaJai, Pinoy Fusion to The Best Steakhouse, Johnny Baby’s to Ngon Bistro, Flamingo to Trend Bar, Midway Pro Bowl to Big V’s, On’s Kitchen to Tracks Bar and Grill, Caspian Bistro to Playoffs Sports Lounge, Mesa Pizza to Stub and Herb’s, The Dubliner to Ippindo Ramen, Silhouette to Little Szechuan, and T-Rex to Campus Club (the end of the line).
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The Green Line Checklist is The Heavy Table’s follow-up to our 55-restaurant survey of independent eateries on Central Avenue. We’ll publish five-restaurant installments biweekly until we’ve documented every nonchain spot between the University Avenue and Rice Street intersection in St. Paul and the Green Line terminus on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis. (We’re estimating 75 spots, but we’ll see how it shakes out.)
This series is made possible by underwriting from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. Heavy Table retains editorial control of the series — as with Central Avenue, this tour will be warts-and-all.
Lao Thai Family Restaurant
501 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue or Dale Street Station
Our server had a voice for radio. We had the feeling that no matter what dish he described, it would sound appealing in his deep, smoky vocal tones.
HIM: “Today’s special is an inner tube lightly bathed in motor oil then lovingly rolled in carpet fibers and served on a bed of toenail clippings.”
US: “Um okay, THAT sounds amazing! We’ll take two.”
Thankfully, he suggested the lobster special.
The place itself is a bit of a contradiction. From the exterior, Lao Thai has almost a posh nightclub vibe with its red painted bricks and signage backlit by blue light. But don’t put on your satin shirt and platform shoes just yet. Inside, the place is about as basic as it gets. Wood laminate tables, black vinyl chairs, brown carpet, orange and blue walls adorned with a smattering of pictures depicting Thailand and Laos. There’s a small wood-paneled bar at the back of the room.
Our server was the personality here.
As he went on to give us his culinary resume and his connection to some of the hit players on the Twin Cities restaurant scene, it was not hard to imagine him as a musician listing the bands he’d played with.
Based on his list, the lineage here is strong. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The Heavy Table team is well acquainted with the folks at Family Lao Thai. Joshua Page wrote about them in our Secret Atlas of North Coast Food, and we’ve taught with them at Kitchen Window. Still, it’s always nice to visit them on University Avenue, which is, after all, where the food happens.
Our meal started with a beef jerky ($5) that had a mellow, lightly smoky, brown-sugar-meets-apple-cider flavor that was charming and compelling.
Our Beef Larb ($7) paired the bright herbal kick of scallions with a super-funky, earthy, acid flavor and really convincing heat. On the plate it’s humble. In the mouth it’s mighty.
And the crux of our meal was a Valentine’s Day weekend special, pitched to us with convincing fervor and a distinct lack of pricing information. The Ginger Lobster ($35) was a real delight on the plate: a whole lobster steamed and cut into pieces, rich with buttery, ginger-kicked sauce and — most critically — cooked correctly. It takes only a bit of overcooking to turn a sexy, holiday-weekend splurge into arguable grounds for a one-star review on Yelp, but Family Lao Thai pulled it off. — James Norton
432 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue Station
We hadn’t planned on visiting Thai Garden. The place didn’t even exist when we scouted University a few months ago. But we spotted it on our way to another restaurant and decided to change our itinerary. The Checklist crew is all about spontaneity. Often by necessity.
The restaurant occupies a house, appropriately. Why appropriately? Because the overwhelming vibe we got was that we’d been invited into a neighbor’s home to eat an authentic Thai meal prepared and served by the family that lives there.
And that’s pretty much what happened.
The owner came out to the dining room, chatted with us for a while, and gave us some recommendations before going back to the kitchen to prepare our meal. And our dinner was served to us by his granddaughter.
As for the food, it was unique in a way we haven’t experienced at a Thai place in a while. The owner told us this is at least partly because he orders ingredients used by no other Thai restaurant in the area. It can take suppliers up to a month to get their hands on them.
The “River Monster” alone is worth the price of admission. There’s nothing quite so dramatic as being served a whole fish — fins flared, fangs bared — sitting upright on it’s belly and swimming in a pool of soup.
According to the owner, customers have told him they fear there’s a curse on the place because so many restaurants have tried and failed in this location. After eating here, we sincerely hope that won’t the fate of Thai Garden. The “River Monster” should be enough to scare away any curse. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
It’s a little difficult to know where to start with Thai Garden. This is a restaurant that presents a facade so humble and so ordinary that you would never, ever, save through word of mouth, venture in. But within its walls works a chef turning out some of the finest Thai food in the state, bar none. Why the superlatives?
Well, try the River Monster ($19), a whole red snapper swimming in a lake of beautifully prepared, ideally sour and hot Tom Yum soup. Visually, the dish kicks a stadium full of ass. With its dorsal spines and teeth still intact, the fish dares you to approach it. But its tender, lovely flesh flakes right off, and is then ready to be dragged through the soup and into your life. We didn’t think it possible, but it’s as much fun to eat as it is to look at.
Alternatively, try the Pad Prik Pao ($11). The chef talked us through his brown sauce, which he makes from scratch (using some ingredients he special orders), and we were ready for something special when the dish hit the table. And that is precisely what we received — surging layers of garlic, sweetness, heat, sourness, and more, happily covering a big plate of vegetables and shrimp.
Our Chicken Pad Thai ($9) was every bit the delight that its counterpart at Thai Cafe was. It had an almost kimchi-like funky heat, a lovely citrus vinegar sourness, and all the of serious nuances that get beaten out of the garbagy, oversweet pad thai served in malls everywhere.
And our Thai Iced Coffee ($4) was killer — rich, sweet, jet fuel.
Even on a street full of funky, memorable highlights, this place stands out. — J.N.
Pho Ca Dao
439 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue Station
Opened in 1992, Pho Ca Dao was one of the early entries in the “pho joint” category. And it’s easy to see how it had a hand in creating the template for what was to come. From the numbered tables for simplified bill payment to the easy-to-wipe-down laminate surfaces and tile floors to the wall calendar from 2006 featuring the visage of Jesus Christ, this is exactly the kind of no-frills interior design we’ve come to expect from today’s pho joints.
The restaurant is essentially two smallish rooms separated by a mirror-covered wall with an arched opening. The mirrors do their job of making the place appear five times its size, but they’re also a bit disorienting at first, in a fun-house maze kind of way.
The menu is ridiculously simple. Choose from two “Pho Favorites” or create your own from three of the five pictured ingredients and extras such as chicken or meatballs. Decide how big you want your bowl using the handy cardboard pizza rounds on the wall for reference. There is only one appetizer: egg rolls.
There it is.
If you’ve been wanting to learn what the Vietnamese soup thing is all about but have been daunted by the thought of slurping into the unknown without a guide, Pho Ca Dao is your easy way in. And fear not; just because they make pho easy doesn’t mean it’s not the real deal. The pictures of tripe and tendon on the menu will reassure you of this. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Looking back, the theme of the evening seemed to be drama — dramatic spice, dramatic depth of flavor, and (in the case of Lao Thai) a dramatic tab.
Here at Pho Ca Dao, we were stunned by the dramatic temperature of the egg rolls ($2.75), which came out not warm, not hot, but essentially molten. Before we got one in our mouth, we fumbled one onto the floor where it burned its way through the tile and fell into the basement, starting a small but ultimately self-extinguishing fire. In other words, they were hot. That probably should’ve been a warning, but we ate them anyway.
Pho Ca Dao isn’t really about the egg rolls, of course. This venerable establishment has made its bones on pho, and we liked what we got — huge, serious bowls of soup brimming with meat and noodles. This is some soulful pho. Our House Special ($8.50 for the extra large portion) was gamy in a good way: not overly salty, and sweet but not aggressively so. Better was our Chicken and Brisket bowl ($7.75 for a large portion.) The chicken meat turned the broth into a heavenly, super-powered version of the “grandma’s chicken soup” ideal. Next time we’re laid up with a cold, this is the pho we want delivered to us.
We got a couple of the classic Vietnamese pho shop desserts. The first was the ubiquitous Tri-Color ($2.75), a mix of shockingly firm red jello, green tapioca, and yellow — well, something. We also got the related but distinctly different Red Beans and Green Tapioca ($3), which had an earthy, coconut depth and the pleasant, if slightly unnerving, taste of al dente sweetened beans.
Pho Ca Dao has zero pretense, a warm, lively atmosphere, and all the street cred in the world. It’s legit, through and through. — J.N.
422 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue Station
Little Szechuan on University claims to be “the first and only 100% authentic Szechuan hot pot restaurant in Twin Cities.” And when they say authentic, they mean it. The specials board at the entrance doesn’t even bother with English translations.
Our server sat us at a large table with a heating element in the middle and did his best to explain how the concept worked. Each of us nodded and said things like “uh-huh” and “OK” and secretly hoped others in the group understood what to do better than we did. Then our server walked away, and we were left alone, pencil-in-hand, blinking at a white sheet of paper filled with line after line of selections. We quickly gathered our composure and took a stab, choosing Szechuan-style “numbing” soup as our base along with a few meats, veggies, and dumplings for cooking.
Soon after, we were presented with a tray of raw ingredients and a large stainless bowl separated into two chambers by a blade of curved steel. The hot pot was filled with an angry looking broth with devilish red pepper pods bobbing on the surface. Our server placed it on the burner in the center of our table and told us to wait for the liquid to heat up.
They say a watched pot never boils, but it’s difficult to avoid watching when the pot is in the middle of the table. Guessing how long the broth would take to boil became a sort of party game. When it finally began to froth and roil, we could hardly contain our excitement. Camera apps were launched. Slo-mo videos were captured. Instagrams were posted.
It’s difficult not to use the phrase “bubbling cauldron” when describing the hot pot at full boil. So, we’ll just go with the metaphor: We tossed our goodies into the bubbling cauldron using our chopsticks, and like mischievous witches, we began slowly stirring them about. Sadly, eye of newt wasn’t on the menu. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
The whole Szechuan hot pot experience appears to be designed to convey — Danger! Excitement! Liquid disaster! You’ve got roiling, bubbling, angry-looking broth that pulsates with menace, huge chilis floating amidst the numbing Szechuan peppercorns, and some complicated timing in terms of boiling and removing your cookables – in our case, Japanese pumpkin slices, Chinese broccoli, sirloin, and dumplings.
Even getting to this point (throwing proteins and vegetables willy-nilly into Beelzebub’s broth) took some doing. Upon being seated, we were presented with a cross-indexed grid of broths, proteins, vegetables, and sizes that was largely incomprehensible to a group of hot pot newbies. We ticked some boxes and hoped for the best. Our waiter gamely tried to walk us through it, but it was clear we weren’t absorbing as much as we should have. This was, after all, restaurant No. 4 for us, and we were getting punchy.
An initial briefing that suggested a $27 per person all-you-can-eat price (which would have utterly wrecked our budget for the night) left me terrified that we might accidentally do hundreds of dollars of damage and be stuck with enough hot pot for a full shift of dockworkers, but things worked out. We went a la carte, and $31 (in total) was enough for a light, entertaining snack for our crew of six.
The headline vis-a-vis flavor is this: Numbing. Szechuan peppercorns numb your mouth, and things taste different. Not better, not worse, but different (which is certainly better if you’re novelty junkies, as we are). The strangest aspect of this numbing sensation is how it transforms the simple act of drinking a glass of water. The best we could do to explain it to one another was to say that the water tasted “spiky,” and then it disappeared from our palates, even before being swallowed. Spiky, then gone. Doesn’t make sense? Go to Little Szechuan, numb it up, and then take it to the comments section, we’ll meet you there.
The food was, overall, satisfying. The vegetables took on the rich, somewhat oily, numbing character of the broth, the dumplings were robust, and the meat was pleasantly tender and unctuous after just a short dip in the pot. The experience was a hoot. In future months, we’ll rally a team of culinary adventurers and return for more. — J.N.
448 University Ave W, St. Paul
Western Avenue Station
Stand on this part of University Avenue, close your eyes and throw a rock in any direction. You’ll hit either a Thai restaurant, a Vietnamese joint, or a place that offers some mix of Southeast Asian cuisines. Hell, with a decent ricochet, you may hit all three in one throw. (We’d already visited one of each on this outing.)
But at Cheng Heng, the painting of Angkor Wat on the wall and on the front of the menu makes it unmistakably clear: this is a Cambodian restaurant pure and simple. And that is something a bit more rare.
It was getting late, and there were only a few patrons besides us.
An elderly couple was comfortably camped out at a front table, casually thumbing through a book and chatting. They weren’t eating or working the tables or the kitchen, but they gave the impression that they belonged here. If they weren’t the owners, they had to be their parents. And we’d be surprised if they weren’t here most nights, perched in the very same chairs, keeping an eye on things.
A woman, seemingly the couple’s daughter (or daughter-in-law), was busily wiping down tables and straightening chairs and generally prepping the place for closing after a long day of work. Her child lay sprawled across a chair, bored to death and ready to go home.
This scene was a perfect picture of a family that has worked hard to build something special and is succeeding in doing it well day in and day out. And like Angkor Wat, it was something to behold. — M.C.
*** FOOD NOTES ***
Cheng Heng is a wonderful restaurant — a St. Paul institution, the best (to our knowledge) Cambodian restaurant in the state, a place where you will be dazzled with heat, funk, depth of flavor, and unctuous richness. But the thing that really zapped us out of our fifth-restaurant-of-the-night stupor was the Egg Soda ($3.50, above). Take glass No. 1 — filled with a raw egg yolk, some club soda, and a layer of sweetened condensed milk — stir it up at the table until it starts fizzing over the side, and then quickly deposit the silken mass into glass No. 2, filled with ice cubes.
But is it good? Despite seeming like a dare in a glass, it’s very good. The lightness of the soda, the richness of the egg, and the gentle sweetness of the milk support one another and make for a beverage that’s refreshing but substantial.
Enough with the novelty beverage. The food is, of course, the thing. Ho Mok ($10) is one of the signature dishes of both Cambodia and Cheng Heng. It’s a steamed curry of fish and coconut cream, flavored with herb paste, and topped with (in this case, perfectly cooked) shrimp. The dish is rich and comforting and jungle funky, with an incredible depth of flavor and at times overpowering strength. It’s one of those things that people who have traveled in Cambodia later come to miss, and it’s easy to see why — nothing tastes quite like it. And while we mentioned earlier that the shrimp were perfectly cooked, let’s return to that point. Restaurant shrimp are so often overcooked and tough that we have essentially accepted that state as shrimp’s natural fate. But no — shrimp can be delicate and gentle and yielding, as they were at Cheng Heng.
We also tried Pahok Ktiss ($9), a curry-meets-rice-meets-green-vegetables DIY affair. The curry — oddly, but convincingly — reminded us of a good Bolognese, with its warmth and rich, almost oily depth that tasted quite wonderful when spread across the rice or used as a dip for the austere veggies that filled our plate.
The restaurant’s Chive Cakes ($5) are no joke, either. They’re incredibly crisp and pack a huge chive punch. Simple as it gets, but as lovely as an orchid. — J.N.