Cheng Heng: The Return (St. Paul, MN)

In the last year and a half or so, as the pandemic entered its (hopefully) late and waning period, we’ve been eating in at restaurants pretty much as we had been prior to March 2020. In the Twin Cities metro we’ve eaten in that time at a number of newer/new to us restaurants (your Khalunas and Kalsadas, to take only the ones starting with the letter K); and we’ve also been going back to eat at many of our old favourites. Some of these have been at the high end (Alma, Spoon and Stable, Tenant) but not all. We’ve been back to Grand Szechuan, Kabob’s Indian Grill—both in Bloomington; and in St. Paul to On’s Kitchen, Bangkok Thai Deli and Trieu Chau. And this past weekend we went back to another St. Paul stalwart, located, like those aforementioned, on the Twin Cities’ true Eat Street: University Ave: Cheng Heng. Here’s how it went.

If you live in the Twin Cities, you shouldn’t need to be told that Cheng Heng is the premier Cambodian restaurant in the region, and has been for many years now. I’ve previously reported on two meals eaten there before the pandemic (here and here) and on one takeout meal when that’s all they and we were doing. Going back there in person had been high on the eating agenda for a while; and this past Sunday we finally made it in, accompanied by a few friends who we eat out with often.

We were a party of eight, and when we arrived we had the pick of tables in the dining room to the right—there were already a few parties seated in the other dining room which has the larger circular tables. This was a bit of a bummer as we’d been hoping to sit around one of those—it’s tough as a larger party to be able to have conversations (or share a lot of food) around a long table. But we rolled with it. Their menu, as you will know if you’ve been, is voluminous. It runs to about 11 pages. It contains a large number of Cambodian dishes as well as a number that cross international borders in Southeast Asia. And there are some dishes in there that doubtless cater to the broader clientele in St. Paul.

If you’re not familiar with the menu you can ask your server to help with recommendations from the many Cambodian entrees. If it’s your first time eating Cambodian food, you should probably get an order of the lot chha (a stir-fry of stubby rice noodles), a sour soup of some kind (when in doubt go with the machu kroeng) and an order of the prahok ktiss (a mildly spicy ground pork and fermented fish dip served with a variety of cut vegetables). For our first meal back in we did indeed get the latter two dishes on this occasion as well; and we got the curry version of the machu kroeng. What else did we eat? A lot. To start we had two orders of the hot and spicy chicken wings (very good), the crispy fish with peppers (very good), and a papaya salad with salted crab (decent). The younger people in the contingent shared an order of the by moan (steamed chicken over rice cooked in stock) and an order of the roast pork over rice. They gave both positive reports.

The adults ate quite a bit more. I’ve already mentioned the lot chha (very good with good wok hei), the prahok ktiss (just okay on this occasion), and the curry machu kroeng (probably my favourite at this meal). In the noodles dept. we added an order of the banh hoy (rice noodles topped with various things) that was quite nice. In the soup dept. we added on a Phnom Penh noodle soup (nice). And two stir fries to finish: the chha kroeng (good) and the chha hot and spicy with curry sauce (quite good). A lot of rice came with a number of these things to mop them up with.

For a look at the restaurant, the massive menu, and what we ate, click on a pick below to launch a larger slideshow. Scroll down for thoughts on service, to see how much it cost, and to see what’s coming next on the restaurant report front.

This is a family-run restaurant and as such the quality of service can vary depending on who ends up taking your order. This has never been an issue in the past but on this occasion, the young gent taking our order was a bit at sea. He didn’t know if the unspecified noodles in another dish we were interested in were rice noodles and didn’t seem inclined to check (a member of the group has a wheat allergy); he got parts of our order wrong (we were first given a wonton soup in place of the curry machu kroeng, and a second order of lot chha that we had not placed); he told us one thing we’d ordered was not available but it in fact showed up (it was another dish that was not available). And he didn’t fix most of these things on the check. I thought I’d sorted it all out while paying but when I got home I noticed we’d also been charged (not very much) for a drink we’d not had. It was just a couple of dollars—not the end of the world—but you might want to pay attention when paying. Drinks we did have: one Sprite, one strawberry boba and one Cambodian iced coffee.

The total on the fixed check came to just over $205. We were eight but this would have comfortably fed a party of 10 hungry adults (we overate and took leftovers home). So, really, just about $20/head in actual effective cost. Extremely good value even if this was probably the least of all of the meals we’ve eaten/got from there in the last several years. It was nothing that made me want to give up on them but we’ll go back to Kolap (not too far away) before we return to Cheng Heng.

Next week’s Twin Cities restaurant report will probably also involve East Asian food in St. Paul. That report will come next Tuesday. Before that I should have reports from at least two of the following locations: Seoul, New Jersey and Goa. Let’s see how it goes.



2 thoughts on “Cheng Heng: The Return (St. Paul, MN)

  1. One of my all-time favorite restaurants to go to. It’s been more than 20 years, and we have gotten to know Kunrath and Kevin. I wanted to take some spring rolls with me to visit my daughter in Iowa, and Kevin spent about 20 minutes with me, talking how to preserve them on the trip down, and then what to do in order to warm them up … but not too much. It was the first place my daughter and I went to eat after y husband died, and Kunrath cried with us. It’s a great family place!


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