Top 5 places to eat in Little Mekong
Mai Village in Little Mekong
Billed as Saint Paul's answer to Eat Street, the Little Mekong area at the east end of University Avenue has become something of a destination lately. There are still plenty of shuttered businesses to go around, but with the Central Corridor light rail set to open in 2014 and its easy accessibility from I-94, the neighborhood's main artery is betting on a renaissance.
If hopes are up, that's in no small part thanks to the abundant Asian dining options. Many of them are good, a few of them are downright excellent. On the whole, Little Mekong is quickly becoming a Twin Cities hot spot. When the light rail finally starts rolling, it's sure to give Eat Street a run for its money.
5. Bangkok Thai Deli, 315 University Ave W.
Bangkok Thai Deli is possibly the worst kept secret in Saint Paul, and no other place captures the spirit of Little Mekong better. Until recently, the Deli was located in a windowless side room of the Vietnamese supermarket across the street. It was dark, noisy, and on hot summer days, the impressive array of fans and portable AC units didn't even stand a chance. Foodies, of course, loved to brag about it. ("Dude, get a load of this super-secret hole in the wall I found. You can't even see it from the street.") Bangkok Thai Deli has now moved into the defunct Burger King across the street, and though climate control is better, some of the charm is gone. The food, on the other hand, is as good as ever. Bangkok Thai Deli's fare is at once unpretentious and a grand showcase for the delicate ballet of flavors that makes Thai food so irresistible. Sample the wide variety of curries, noodle dishes, and seafood platters. You won't come away disappointed. Even the lowly spring roll is a work of art here. Now that the Deli is actually visible from the street, it's somewhat less of a foodie hipster find, but it's no less mouthwatering. And at $8 for a curry, $5 for a bowl of pho, and $9 for shrimp pad see ew, it's exceedingly budget-friendly.
4. On's Kitchen, 1613 University Ave. W.
Located at the intersection of University and Snelling Avenue, this homely Thai eatery is technically not in Little Mekong, but it's not much of a detour, and the food is more than outstanding. That shouldn't come as a surprise, since owner On Khumchaya, who gave the restaurant her name, ran Bangkok Thai Deli's kitchen before striking out on her own in 2011. At On's, you'll find staples such as pad Thai, mango chicken, and a variety of curries. They're all excellent. More adventurous are the dishes you wouldn't see at any old Thai place, such as the crispy soft shell crab or the whole steamed tilapia, which has won praise all around. We're especially taken with the crispy calamari appetizer. It's pedestrian at first sight, but in On's hands, the dish acquires a slow burn that makes it more than memorable.
3. Ngon, 799 University Ave W. A more upscale offering is the French-Vietnamese bistro Ngon at the corner of Avon Street and University. If you're going to take a first date anywhere around Little Mekong, do it here. Before Vietnam was an American battlefield and an independent country, it was a French colony. Hence, Ngon serves up familiar Vietnamese fare like pho, bún, and spring rolls, but much of the menu has a distinct French twist. Take the croquettes of sweet potatoes, shrimp, scallions, and spicy aioli, for example, or the seared duck breast with parsnip cake, Brussels sprouts, and coconut curry squash puree. Ngon shies away from the Asian kitsch décor, and rightly so; the food speaks for itself. And if your date really isn't into Asian food (which we consider a romantic deal breaker, but maybe that's just us), there's always the moules frites and the steak au poivre as a fallback option.
2. Pho Ca Dao, 439 University Avenue W. Style is non-existent at this grungy corner joint, and the bathrooms are an emergencies only proposition, but boy, do they make a mean pho. To be perfectly honest, we've gotten so stuck on the noodle soup that we haven't made it to any other menu item here, save for the quite serviceable, but nothing-to-write-home-about egg rolls. Truth is, there's really no need to branch out: The pho is that good. Like pizza, pho tends to be good even when it's bad, but Pho Da Cao, makes this traditional soup transcendent. Sit down at one of the scuffed-up formica tables, order up a bowl, and let the magic of the broth come to you. You'll never look back. No credit cards accepted here, but the equally grungy convenience store across the street has an ATM ready to go.
1. Mai Village, 394 University Ave. Let's be straight about this: On a normal day we are no fans of the faux pagodas that adorn many Asian restaurants. Mai Village gets a pass, though, as the wooden temple that is the restaurant's center-piece was hand-carved especially for it and shipped in from Vietnam. Don't let all the fancy woodwork and the bridge and koi pond ensemble at the entrance distract you from the extensive menu of Vietnamese specialties, however. Dishes are served looking picture-perfect. You'll find yourself staring longingly at your neighbors' plates. The delicate bún noodle salads strike the perfect balance. The meats are infused with a deep goodness. Service is prompt, but unobtrusive. Yet, for all of Mai Village's successes, this local favorite is actually recovering from a near-death experience. A longtime mainstay for city hall folk and State Capitol bigwigs, the restaurant was on the receiving end of the one-two punch of the recession and light rail construction. The building fell into foreclosure and only an eleventh hour intervention from the Hmong American Partnership kept the establishment from defaulting on a half million dollar loan during LRT construction. We wholeheartedly encourage you to lend your support.
BONUS: Ha Tien Grocery Store, 353 University Ave W. Yes, we know: It's not a restaurant. But this grocery store has such an exceptional deli counter, we'll throw it in as an extra. Glistening, succulent pieces of meat greet you from behind the glass as you make your choice. Our favorite is the barbeque sandwich, a foot-long baguette piled high with barbecued pork, paté, veggies, hot peppers, a spicy secret sauce, and a royally administered helping of butter to top it all off. The sandwich is large, but by no means overpowering, and you'll be craving a second one as soon as you finish the first. On your way out, make your choice from the wide array of exotic fruit drinks on display in the gleaming wall-to-wall coolers.
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