University Avenue is full of Asian restaurants, especially along the stretch that’s known as Little Mekong, from Mackubin to Galtier streets. I have lots of favorites along that stretch, but the special, warm feeling you’ll get from eating at Cheng Heng, the Cambodian restaurant on University Avenue in St. Paul goes beyond the spiciness of some of the cuisine. Maybe it’s the friendliness with which customers are greeted. Or maybe it’s knowing that the owners, Kunrath and Kevin Lam, have donated some of the earnings from their restaurant to build schools back in Cambodia. But mainly it’s the cuisine. Although there are many resemblances to Vietnamese and especially Thai cuisine, there are also enough differences to make for a refreshing change of pace.
Best bets include the dense and savory pan-fried sticky rice dumplings filled with chives, a pungent, not-too-spicy green papaya salad with salted crab; and pahok ktiss, a bowl of ground pork in a savory curry sauce, served with steamed rice and a plate of raw vegetables for dipping ($7.95). Also recommended are the curried fish (ho mok,, a custard of minced fish with coconut milk, kafir lime leaf, lemongrass and Chinese broccoli, steamed in a banana leaf and topped with shrimp. A similar dish is offered as an appetizer on some local Thai restaurant menus, but Cheng Heng’s version is more substantial, and much livelier.