Cheng Heng (St. Paul, MN)
Cambodian food is similar to other Southeast Asian cuisines; it's less sweet than Thai and less salty than Vietnamese. It's a subtle variant on those two traditions, with dishes that feature a rich interweaving of cultural influences and fresh, light flavors. Cilantro, its seed (called coriander), mint leaves, and lemongrass are all popular in Cambodian cuisine.
If you're interested in trying Cambodian cooking, Cheng Heng is your only option in the Twin Cities. This is just the sort of restaurant we love: delicious, authentic ethnic food, costing next to nothing, and served by new immigrants in a family restaurant devoid of any atmosphere. The restaurant takes up a corner of a larger building where you can also buy jewelry and assorted Cambodian crafts. There are about a dozen bare tables in the place, the lights are too bright, and there are more Cambodians eating there than Westerners.
Start your meal with some appetizers and salads. We recommend the plear salad, which is a mix of sliced beef, green pepper, radishes (we really liked the radishes), bean sprouts, mint leaves, and lime juice. It's served cold, but with a side of hot rice. It's pungent but light -- a perfect starter. Or try the nhum salad: shrimp and chicken mixed with shredded cabbage, celery, green pepper, radishes, bean thread noodles (clear, thin, noodles made from mung beans), mint leaves, and lime juice. We also liked the papaya salad. The portions are generous, and one salad is plenty for two people.
Order the spring rolls. These are fresh and perfect, made with both pork and shrimp, mint leaves, and rice noodles. For a while, we were on a quest for the Twin Cities' Best Spring Roll. These are as good as any we've had. If you like deep-fried eggrolls (we don't), the Cambodian eggrolls are made with bean thread noodles, ground pork, carrots, onions, and cabbage. They were flavorful and not very greasy.
Save room for the entrees. Everything we've ordered has been great. Our only rule: don't bother with the Chinese dishes. We finally learned that Chinese food is best in a Chinese restaurant. You don't have to test this rule for yourself, honest. We particularly liked the chha kroeng: a beef, chicken, or tofu stir-fry with lemongrass, green peppers, onions, and roasted peanuts; the dish was balanced and flavorful. Other good stir-fries are luc lac, banh hoy, and chha katna.
Try the Cambodian crepe. Called banh cheo, it's filled with ground pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. And the "crepe" isn't made from eggs, it's made from soy flour. It's tasty, and not nearly as weird as we expected. The chean chuen, a whole fried fish served with a ginger soybean sauce and sprinkled with ground pork was tasty, but a bit hard to eat. It needs a larger plate. As a general rule, order at least one whole fish as long as the attached head and tail won' be a dismaying surprise.
The soups are also delicious. We like the Cambodian curry noodle soup and the kor koo noodle soup. These are all wonderful: filled with noodles, vegetables, and meats. These can be ordered small or large; we like ordering one large soup and small bowls to share.
Much of the food is advertised as spicy, but in general we think it's not. The food is much milder than Thai or Szechuan cooking. We're still trying to figure out if they're toning the dishes down for us Westerners.
We drank the usual jasmine tea. Cheng Heng also offers a traditional Cambodian red tea, served with sweetened condensed milk and then poured over ice. It's light and sweet, and a perfect complement to the food -- especially when you want something more celebratory. You can also order egg soda, which is exactly what it says on the menu: raw egg, soda water, and sweetened condensed milk. It tastes much better than it sounds, and it is nothing like the egg cream it sounds like.
It can be hard to visualize some of the dishes, even with the descriptions on the menu, but you can ask for the photo album that shows all the finished products.
The best part is that it's cheap. Even with a very generous tip, you're going to be hard pressed to spend more than $15 a person. Order one item for lunch, and you'll spend less than $10. And it'll be delicious. How can you go wrong with that?