One of my favourite meals of 2018 was eaten very early in the year, at the Twin Cities’ premier Cambodian restaurant, Cheng Heng on University Ave. in St Paul (where else?). We went there with a lot of friends and we all loved the food. It had taken us more than 10 years to get there and we resolved to come back very soon. Of course, as happens with most of our resolutions, we didn’t end up actually keeping it. We did make it to St. Paul’s other excellent Camboadian restaurant, Kolap, later in the year but it wasn’t until this past weekend that we finally made it back to Cheng Heng. There isn’t much of a point to this lead-up except to say that I hope you are better than us at going to Cheng Heng because it really is a very good restaurant and we really should all go there more often. Yes, we liked this lunch a lot too.
We weren’t there in such a large group this time: just us, our brats and my visiting parents. We arrived around 12.30 on a Sunday and were seated right away—in the smaller, or at least the longer dining room to the right of the entrance. They were busy when we got there and just kept getting busier. The crowd, as far as I could make out, was a mix of Cambodian families, Hmong and Vietnamese families and then various of us who are not from South East Asia but from various other parts of the world—in short, a University Ave. restaurant crowd. And everyone seemed very happy with their food.
What did we order? Being a small group and not being disposed to take leftovers home this time, we ordered with some restraint. For the boys we got their Roast Pork over Rice. It is served with a mild chicken broth and a tangy dipping sauce (not too heavy on the fish sauce) and the plate includes a fried egg and pickled veg. The boys went through the meat and the rice and the egg at a rapid rate. The grown-ups shared the following: Machu Kreong, a sour soup with herbs and Thai eggplant—we got it with fish; Lot Chha, stir-fried stubby rice noodles with pork; Larb with chicken; Banh Cheo, a large crepe filled with pork, small shrimp and bean sprouts—it came with a lot of veg on the side and a peanutty sauce; and the Prahok Ktiss with curry sauce, the classic dish of ground pork and coconut milk served again with a lot of veg for dipping. The food was uniformly excellent. The Machu Kreong and the Pahok Ktiss were my favourites—and I liked the latter better than the more refined version at Hai Hai—but I’d have been happy to eat any of those dishes again.
For a look at the space and the large menu and at what we ate, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on service, price/value etc.
Despite how busy they were, service was attentive and friendly. We had the same server as last year—I suspect she is the manager or owner—and she was more than happy to make recommendations and describe dishes past what’s on the menu. That menu is large; we didn’t repeat any dishes from our first visit and I think we could go another couple of visits before running out of things we want to try. Prices remain reasonable as well. With tax and tip we paid about $84 or $14/head; if you count the boys as one adult then about $17/head. Extremely good value either way. We are really going to come back much faster—and we’ll go back soon to Kolap as well. And if you haven’t been (recently), I recommend you go too.
Well, this will probably be my last Twin Cities report for August. I don’t think we’ll have time to eat out before heading east next week. I do have a couple of Duluth/North Shore reports to come though—so if you’re interested in Minnesota content, check back for those.
Cheng Heng has been a hidden gem for about 20 years now. They deserve so much more notice. The food and service has been consistent and good every time I’ve visited (sadly, no more than about twice a year). I wonder what might increase their prominence?
It would help if the Twin Cities food media would do more to highlight the excellent immigrant restaurants we have and not just chase the big cheffy places. Imagine if a tenth of the noise generated over Lucky Cricket had been aimed at places like Cheng Heng instead. If it isn’t hipster’ized or “elevated” in some way (think Hai Hai) these cuisines get so little love from the local writers.
I would hate to see Cheng Heng “hipsterized” — it would lose so much of the charm of being so obviously a family-run place.
Well, I don’t think there’s any risk of that happening. I’m just noting that the local food media only seems to take “ethnic” food seriously in a hipsterized/”elevated” avatar. Which is too bad—they miss so much of what makes the Twin Cities food scene truly special.
The weird thing is, the local food media tries so hard to insist that the Twin Cities “fine dining”/New American/Place With $12 Cocktails scene is on par with New York, San Fran, Chicago etc. It just isn’t – which is fine! Because what we do have is University Avenue and a decent-sized immigrant/refugee population. For a metro’s best Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Mexican, and Ethiopian restaurants to be within a couple miles of each other on the same street is remarkable. And yet the only media outlet who took that seriously was the Heavy Table (City Pages can be ok too). Bizarre.
Thanks MAO for reminding me I need to get back to Cheng Heng soon.
More like $15 cocktails Ed! Also, we’re definitely not on par with the others, given the downtown 18% tax on alcohol (or thereabouts); the highest in the nation I believe. One good reason I stay away from downtown Minneapolis.