Kolap: Cambodian Cuisine in St. Paul

It took us 10 years of living within 50 minutes drive of it to finally get to Cheng Heng, the Twin Cities’ premier Cambodian restaurant. I reviewed it earlier this year and described it as probably the only Cambodian restaurant in the area. I was informed in the comments that there was in fact another not too far away: Kolap. You can certainly—accurately—see this as evidence of how unreliable a guide I am to the Twin Cities’ food scene. On the other hand, you might also be able to see it as evidence of how little attention these restaurants—and others not too far away from them on University Ave. that specialize in cuisines from other Southeast Asian countries—get from the local mainstream food media. That’s my alibi, at any rate. It is, of course, not the case that Kolap is totally obscure: in looking it up I discovered that the New York Times had included it two years ago in a piece on the diverse food scene of St. Paul. The New York Times may from time to time associate Minnesota with things like grape salad, but it also apparently does a better job than the local media sometimes of highlighting hidden jewels. In any event, it did not take us as long to get to Kolap after learning of its existence as it had to get to Cheng Heng. We ate there with friends a couple of weeks ago. Here is my report. 

Kolap is located a few blocks north of University and the main drag of Asian restaurants. It is at the intersection of Dale and Thomas, to be exact. It’s not as large as Cheng Heng but it’s not a tiny restaurant either. It has a nice, cosy feel, even though there weren’t very many other people there when we were there—we were eating an early lunch on a Saturday; they were, however, already doing brisk takeout business. The walls are not overloaded with kitschy art and the clearest sign that you are in a Cambodian restaurant is that the big tv on one wall is tuned to a Cambodian channel. The staff are all very friendly, if not equally fluent in English.

While their menu too is smaller than Cheng Heng’s, it is not by any means abbreviated. And very little on it is aimed at people uninterested in trying Cambodian food. While the menu includes pho among the noodle soups, and the inevitable pad Thai does show up at the end of the menu, most of it seems to be resolutely Cambodian fare. Or at least so it seems to my barely-informed eyes. If you know more about Cambodian food—which wouldn’t take much—please write in below. It goes without saying that my meal report has little to say about how close to their origins the dishes on the menu are; but I can tell you that everything we ate was very tasty and little seemed to us to be making allowances for mainstream Minnesotan palates. That said, very little of what we ate would probably alarm those palates.

We were a smaller group on this occasion than had gone to Cheng Heng—four adults and our boys—and so we didn’t do quite as much damage. Their menu may be shorter than Cheng Heng’s but it’s certainly not just a shorter version of Cheng Heng’s. What I mean by this is is that there are things here that are not done the exact same way as they are at Cheng Heng, and there are also things here that are not available at Cheng Heng, and vice versa—to the latter point, I didn’t see any curry dishes. As such it wasn’t possible to get a bunch of similar dishes and compare the executions.

To see the dishes we ate and what we thought of them, please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on value, service and to see what our favourite dishes were.

So, value. It’s a screaming value, is what it is. We ate like pigs, took leftovers home and it still came to $15/head with tax and tip (counting our boys as one adult diner). You could spend a lot more in the Cities for food that wouldn’t be as solid on the whole—again, there wasn’t a single dish that we did not like a lot. The consensus favourite dishes were probably the lot chha and the beef sour soup. The service was very friendly and the food came out fast as well. Our server was not terribly fluent in English but it was not really an issue. There was a young man there who seemed like a native speaker so I suppose if you wanted more guidance on the menu you could look for him.

If you haven’t been, I recommend them highly. I think we’ll be back soon to try more of the menu.

Up next from the Twin Cities, a fine dining report from Minneapolis: after two abortive attempts we are scheduled to finally make it to dinner to Tenant tonight. Up next from Scotland: a visit to the great Highland Park distillery and a review of one of their whiskies, bottled by a store I visited earlier on the same trip.

5 thoughts on “Kolap: Cambodian Cuisine in St. Paul

  1. Thanks for this, we will have to get there, nice pics of the food. I agree about the local food media, you really only hear about the latest and greatest from them, very little about the small mom and pop ethnic places. SAD!! (sorry, bad joke!)


  2. Thanks for the write up. We’ve only eaten here a couple times but everything we’ve ordered has been good. Even for our notoriously picky kids, even when delivered. Like you I’ve little frame of reference for Cambodian food but between Kolap and Cheng Heng I’ve got to think it is being represented well.


  3. As it happens I was in Cambodia a few months ago. I must admit though I don’t recognise many names of dishes, but that’s mostly because I don’t remember what most of them were called in Khmer. One name I do remember is Amok, which is one of the national dishes in Cambodia, and refers to the practice of steaming a sweet coconut curry in banana leaves. Most of the best dishes there were with fresh water fish, partly because of the abundance of fresh produce from local rivers and lakes. However, I must admit I didn’t get anywhere near a full picture of Khmer cuisine, for a few reasons:

    1) We only visited Siem Reap in order to go to the nearby Angkor complex, which is of course by far the most touristy bit of Cambodia. I suspect the scene in Phnom Penh may be more diverse and representative, though that’s just speculation on my part.

    2) We crossed over to Cambodia from Thailand, whose food I absolutely adore, whether it’s in Bangkok or more rural areas. After the vibrancy of the chilli and lime-dominated flavours in Thai cuisine, Khmer cuisine seemed just a touch on the bland side, which I concede is an unfair assessment.

    3) As mentioned before, we were there mostly for the history, and a lot of the meals were mostly for convenience (proximity to temples or to the hotel when exhausted at the end of the day). Compare that to Thailand, which was mostly a food trip, and it paints an unfair picture.

    I will say though that the fresh fruit in both countries were absolutely spectacular – the bananas especially bear no resemblance to their Western counterparts.


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