I love University Avenue, don’t get me wrong — but once you’ve got it pegged as a Vietnamese cuisine thoroughfare, it’s easy to overlook when you’re craving something other than phở, bún, cơm tấm, or bánh mì. So when a friend suggested a visit to a cheap Asian restaurant on a distinctly non-phở-craving type of day, I dragged my heels a bit. My mistake.
Cheng Heng is as inexpensive as your standard Vietnamese or Thai formula menu — but while this Cambodian eatery offers some pretty solid variants of some of the same dishes (after all, food trends rarely correlate directly with national borders), it offers a few dishes that you’ve quite likely never tried before.
Take, for instance, the Pahok Ktiss (#48, $8), which presents itself like chorizo — greasy, lightly spiced ground pork — only this stuff tastes of ginger and lemongrass. Topped with peas and served with fresh veggies (cucumber, broccoli, and the like), the dip packs a zingy punch yet offers the familiar texture of family reunion sloppy joes.
Chean Chuen (#33, $9) is essentially a filet of fish, deep fried in a light batter and topped by a similar ground pork-and-lemongrass mixture. Though the fish was nicely cooked, the more health-conscious Pahok Ktiss offered a better balance of flavors without the additional grease. Chive Cakes (#3A, $4.50, pictured below) — crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside — are basically rice dumplings loaded with fresh chives.
The more basic Cambodian Curry Noodle Soup (Qhob Poob — #40, $6) could easily become a new favorite comfort food. Despite the bright red color, it features a slightly sweet, mild curry flavor and giant, hearty hunks of carrot, onion, chicken, and rice noodles. Try as you might, the slippery noodles will inevitably escape your chopsticks, splashing bright orange splotches down the front of your shirt.
If you’re craving a noodle soup but are afraid of staining your clothes with splattered curry, Sweet and Sour Noodle Soup (#42) — a steal at $5.75 for a large or $7 for an extra large — is perhaps a bit sweeter than some restaurants’ versions (a personal favorite remains the Hot & Sour Soup at China Restaurant in St. Cloud), but features lots of basil, mushrooms, and silky-smooth quail eggs. Tam Yam (#44, $8 chicken / vegetable, $9 shrimp / fish) is comparable to the kaffir lime and lemongrass-seasoned broth popular in Thai restaurants, with the notable addition of quail eggs for extra protein.
The restaurant is unassuming inside and out — you may miss it the first time you drive by, and the inside is the bare bones setup you often see in delis inside Asian grocery stores — but the food is respectable and the price is right. Add a glass of Cambodian red tea (served like Thai iced coffee, which you allow to drip, stir with sweetened condensed milk, then pour over ice) or young coconut water (served in the coconut itself — no cans here!) for $2.75, and you’ve got yourself a meal without breaking the bank.
BEST BET: If you’re looking for comfort food, grab a #40 — Cambodian Curry Noodle Soup — and try not to splatter!
Cambodian in St. Paul
448 University Avenue West
Saint Paul, MN 55103
CHEF / OWNER: Kunrath & Kevin Lam
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $6-9