University Avenue exerts a strong gravity on those seeking authentic Southeast Asian cuisine, and justifiably so. We have to remind ourselves to break free from that pull and venture away from the St. Paul thoroughfare, sometimes just a few blocks, which is where we found a Cambodian gem called Kolap Restaurant (601 Dale St, St. Paul).
Inside its plain brick building at the corner of Dale and Thomas, Kolap is sparsely decorated, aside from artwork depicting temples and landscapes and an archway into the kitchen reminiscent of a temple facade. Scaffolding mounted to the ceiling with lights and speakers suggests live music (or karaoke?).
We had the same server on both visits. We’d be hard pressed to remember friendlier service combined with a higher language barrier. We communicated basically in enthusiastic smiles and nods, and items numbers from the menu. He was among the more engaging servers we’ve met lately.
Kolap’s menu has dishes ubiquitous at Asian restaurants like chicken wings and pad thai as well as regionally specific dishes like pho and lemongrass chicken. But if you go to Kolap (and you should), you’ll want to try something that we haven’t seen anywhere else (if you’ve seen it locally, please let us know): the simply named Sour Soup ($9). It is a combination of familiar ingredients like tomato and pineapple along with novel ingredients like lotus rootlet and moqua (a young melon that behaves here like a cross between a potato and a cucumber). The first thing that hits you is the sweet, piquant aroma of the roasted, chopped garlic scattered on top of the enormous bowl. A pile of basil and cilantro lead you into the steaming broth, which is filled with the aforementioned ingredients in addition to fish (probably tilapia), chicken, and a few perfectly cooked shrimp. Sparse lotus rootlets were crunchy and fibrous. The broth is not unlike that of pho, and all of the ingredients together make a sensory feast. Sour gets top billing, but it is no more pronounced than sweet, salty, umami, and a mild bitterness and astringency from the moqua. It is an outstandingly singular dish and it took a couple of visits to process.
As for the rest of it, everything we tried was expertly prepared and arrived at the table quickly. The Spring Rolls ($3) were plump and fresh, filled with crunchy herbs and vegetables and properly cooked shrimp and pork. Chicken With Lemongrass ($8.75) was flavorful with a lemony, aromatic sauce, wok-kissed chicken, and fresh peppers and onions that retained their crispness.
Loht Chha with chicken ($8.50) arrives with all the visual charm of a plate of cooked earthworms. The noodles and sprouts are of a similar length, width, and beige facelessness. But the noodles and chicken have a great char, and green onions and egg add depth of flavor.
Kolap’s menu may be less expansive than Cheng Heng‘s, perhaps the Twin Cities’ best-known Cambodian restaurant, but if you’ve ever sat at Cheng Heng and flipped back and forth through the menu trying to decide which of the entirely unfamiliar dishes to eat, the answer will be easier at Kolap. You’ll have the Sour Soup.
Kolap Restaurant, 601 North Dale St, St. Paul, MN 55103; 651.336.6108