The Secret of the Junkpile
Cheng Heng Restaurant
448 University Ave. W., St. Paul; 222-5577
Just as the pirate always has a green parrot on his shoulder, just as the Headless Horseman always has a jack-o'-lantern in his free hand, so I, too, have an ever-present companion and leitmotif--the pile of papers at the side of my desk. Oh, you should see it. Things I don't want to deal with but can't throw away; story ideas, half-finished manuscripts, unanswered correspondence, coupons for mini-golf. It's like a scruffy little ghost that rises and falls in direct relation to how on top of things I am. At times it gets downright frightening, threatening to bury me and all my ambitions under its crashing, papery weight. Sometimes I think that when I die, they'll bury me with it, like Wyatt Earp and his six-shooters.
Anyhoo, I was trying to beat that scruffy ghost into submission the other day and I came, again, upon a letter a reader sent me about a little Cambodian restaurant up on University, a letter I have read at least half a dozen times and which invariably causes me vast seconds of unease before I bury it once more. I was on the verge of again re-interring it when I finally paused to think: Why on earth does a letter about a restaurant cause me such distress? Because I don't know beans about Cambodian food, and for me the very word Cambodia conjures up deeply disturbing associations: Pol Pot, the Killing Fields, civil war. Of course that is patently, preposterously unfair. It's not like I pause on the doorsteps of French restaurants and muse: Robespierre, The Reign of Terror, "Off with their heads!" On this realization I raced over to Cheng Heng, and found a small, immaculately clean family restaurant run by husband-and-wife team Kunrath and Kevin Lam, a peach of a place where one can eat pretty darn well, for cheap. After a series of visits to the bright, friendly spot I developed a great fondness for a number of the Cambodian dishes, like my new A-1 absolute favorite beef salad, plear, ($5.75.)
Plear is a lime-infused combination of thinly sliced seared beef, wafer-thin pieces of celery and radishes, crunchy, just-sprouted beans, and red and green bell peppers, all unified by a sauce of chili pepper and lemongrass, and finally brightened by handfuls of whole-leaf herbs like basil, lemon basil, and mint. It's as bright and lively a flavor combination as you can get on one plate, and since it's served with a plate of rice, it also makes a fulfilling meal. Cheng Heng's spring rolls ($2.50 for two) are some of the best in town, made to order and filled with the scads of herbs I've come to know as the Lams' trademark. They are served with generous cups of that rice-vinegar/carrot/chopped peanut dressing other places ladle out by the thimbleful. Papaya salad ($3.50) is a tasty, punchy combination of crisp, shredded green papaya, tomatoes, and a spicy chili sauce. Loth noodles--quarter-inch-thick translucent squares of rice dough--are a new favorite of mine, since they make a harmonious, savory cross between lo mein and chow fun. For lo mein they are seared at high heat and combined in a mild sauce with carrots, celery, and your choice of pork, beef, or shrimp ($5.25.) Chha mussels ($7.25) are an abundant portion of green-lip mussels served with scallions in something similar to a black-bean sauce.
My groups ended up ordering most of what we chose from the picture menu/photo album you can request along with the regular menu, and our biggest wild card by this method was probably the chha kroeng beef, ($5.69) a dish that looked merely dark and plain in the picture, but turned out to consist of crisp slices of beef in a piquant lemongrass sauce, topped with a nice textural contrast of chopped peanuts and firm seared green-pepper chunks.
Not all Cheng Heng's dishes have thus impressed me. The curry noodle soup (quob poob, $4.85 for a large bowl) I tried was a very, very sweet coconut-milk curry far too heavy for my palate. The banh hoy ($4.95) appeared to be merely a different arrangement of the spring-roll ingredients--shrimp, herbs, pork, steamed rice noodles, often cucumber--with lettuce leaves for a wrap. Cheng Heng's menu also offers a page of standard American-Chinese dishes that I didn't venture into, in part because I tend to think that life is too short to eat moo goo gai pan ($6.25), and in part because the big plate of pork fried rice ($4.95) I ordered one night was distinctly unspectacular. (Vegetarians, please note that the Cambodian vegetarian dishes are hidden away at the very end of the menu, after all the Chinese dishes.)
In the end, Cheng Heng not only established my concept of Cambodian food--which no longer sounds strange to me at all--but it also got me into a nice, rah-rah-go-St. Paul! mood: After a few visits to the restaurant, you can't help but root and cheer for the Lams. Kunrath Lam is an Augsburg College grad with an international business background and a charming, fluty voice. Seven months pregnant with the couple's first child, she works at the restaurant seven days a week and trills happily at the cash register: "I don't feel tired working because it's mine." Kevin Lam works all day in the jewelry shop attached to the restaurant, then finishes his 18-hour day waiting tables and cleaning up. And I can't even keep my desk clear!
So St. Paul has proved to me the wisdom of the ancients: An unexamined life leads to a messy desk and no food; an examined life, to delicious plear and good work-habit role models. The only question left: Exactly what culinary and moral message is my sock drawer trying to send me?
GLAMOUR, INTRIGUE, MINI-MALLOWS: When I'm not leading a whirlwind life of glamour and intrigue, I'm wrestling with giant packages from corporate food conglomerates. Why, just the other day I got a box of individually wrapped Christmas cookies--and two rolls of food wrap--from the good folks at a major food-wrap producer, who think that I write about food wrap. I don't, and now I don't buy it either, because I get it free in the mail. I'm a pinprick of a financial black hole to a great multinational's marketing arm. Glamour.
Other mail treats? Corporate marinades with ingredient lists as long as your average Napoleon biography. Boxes of cookies with a New Package Design! A jar of fish seasoning that has been taking up space in my spice shelf ever since some PR hack mailed it to me. I can't throw it out because that would be Wasteful and invite karmic retribution. I can't use it because I like fish too much. Curdling corporate fish spice. Intrigue.
Why do these useless things come to someone who's never ever written about fish spice? Obviously to prove how outnumbered I am. For every one of me there are 200 PR flacks sending out mailings about this major fast-food producer's french fry redesign, and faxes about how I--or rather you, dear reader--can buy a book and "Get a Lifestyle." (Missing a lifestyle? Contact me immediately for a list of curative purchases.)
But then, every once in a while, the PR people triumph and I'm captivated by their slick packages. Like the one that came from the presumably swelling white halls of "Jet-PuffedTM University." Did you know that in a world that purchases more than 300 million bags of Jet-PuffedTM marshmallows every year, we are among the four superpowers? According to the pedagogues of Jet-PuffTM U, the Top 10 marshmallow towns are 1) Los Angeles, 2) New York, 3) Chicago, 4) Minneapolis, 5) Detroit, 6) Philadelphia, 7) Salt Lake City/Boise (tie), 8) San Francisco, 9) Denver, and 10) Seattle. I don't know what Jet-PuffedTM thought we should glean from this information, but here's what I took from it:We are kicking major metropolitan ass. Too bad, so sad, Dallas! We're kicking your beantown butts, Boston! San Diego? New Orleans? Washington, D.C.? Losers, losers, losers.
So the time is upon us, comrades, the time to pull ahead of the Big Three and assert our marshmallow superiority. We have that greatness in us. So what if New York has 13 times more people in its greater metropolitan area? We can eat 13 times more than their worst nightmare. Eat smarter. Start incorporating marshmallows into all your foods. Whenever you order a Caesar salad, ask if it comes with marshmallows. (According to Jet PuffTM, fully 25 percent of marshmallows added to foods end up in salads--and what says "salad" in 1998 more than Caesar?) When waiters ask if you want fresh-ground pepper on your pasta say: No thanks, but have you any marshmallows? Demand marshmallows at each and every opportunity, and eventually we'll have them in finger bowls on the tables. But don't stop there! This Thanksgiving put marshmallows in the sweet potatoes--but also in the green beans and atop every bird! Use them to insulate your windows. They make great packing peanuts! Grout your bathroom with easily made finger taffy! We can rule the marshmallow world. And I've invented, to toast our coming marshmallow superiority, a drink which I'd like to call the Minneapolitan.
Frost a martini glass, margarita-salt style, with a cinnamon-sugar mixture. Take one shot of vodka and another of chocolate liqueur or Kahlua, mix in a cocktail shaker with ice, and decant into the cinnamon-sugar-frosted glass. Garnish with three fire-roasted mini-marshmallows on a toothpick. Kick back and plan our righteous victory dance.
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