Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Award-Winning Restaurants Threatened by Light Rail Construction

by Phyllis Louise Harris
April 2012

Businesses along University Avenue in St. Paul have been feeling the impact of light rail construction for some time.  Some were able to survive the interruption in customer traffic.  Others were not.

Tanpopo, well off the University construction, has been feeling the pinch for more than a year.  Customer traffic declined so much with Lowertown street closures around her restaurant that she eliminated lunch hours and only opened at night.  Sometimes they even closed at night if there were other emergencies.  The loss of business will never be made up, and owner Koshiki Yonemura Smith is doing everything possible just to survive until streets open again for traffic.  Fortunately, dinner crowds still come and the small restaurant is staying afloat.  It is a wonderful place to find the comforts of Japanese cooking such as noodle dishes, wonderful soup and other home cooking from Koshiki’s homeland.  She also varies her menu to use many fresh ingredients from the St. Paul farmers’ market.  And fish dishes are a specialty of hers as well.  Koshiki also maintains a website updated often to include current menu items.  Recent postings advised daily specials were panko kisu, spicy tuna rolls, sweet potato creme brulee (which is absolutely delicious). Visit  Or visit the restaurant at 308 Prince Street in Lowertown St. Paul just a block from the farmers’ market.  For takeout orders, reservations or more information call 651-209-6527.  Do it soon and often.  We want to be sure treasures such as Tanpopo are with us for years to come.  By the way, check out the website for Sushi classes offered at the restaurant.

A few weeks ago the University Avenue bulldozing began from Dale Street toward Marion and a whole new set of businesses suddenly lost customer traffic.  Among them are award-winning restaurants Cheng Heng and Mai Village.  Just down the block at Dale, SunFoods and its Hmong restaurant Destiny CafĂ© are also feeling the loss of business.  Just four more Asian food sources we do not want to lose.

Cheng Heng has been a source of outstanding Cambodian food since 1987, winning rave reviews from area press.  The small, friendly restaurant at 448 University Avenue West in St. Paul has built a following that has suddenly dropped off with the bulldozers out front.  While it is easy to cross the construction area and park in the restaurant’s parking lot, the entry sign is small and easily missed.  It is just west of Western Avenue on University and well worth the extra effort to turn into the opening in the fence.  This is a restaurant that actually specializes in mother’s home cooking for many of the dishes are from Kunrath Lam’s mother who still works in the kitchen.  Soups are hardy and flavorful.  A special Cambodian meal is centered around a hot pot with special sauces and noodles.  Fried shrimp with peppers served on a bed of lettuce takes on Cheng Heng’s special touch.  And the menu of more than 60 items offers a flavorful trip to Cambodia.  On weekends the restaurant makes Cambodian treats such as donuts made of sweet rice flour glazed with palm sugar and deep-fried buns filled with taro and coconut.  Call the restaurant for more information, for takeout orders and reservations, 651-222-5577.

Just a block away at 394 University at the corner of Western Avenue the award-winning Mai Village has been serving freshly cooked Vietnamese food for more than twenty years.  The road construction in front of the building has had some affect on traffic but the restaurant’s parking lot also opens on to Western for easier access.  With its gallery of Vietnamese art and antiques, Mai Village provides a beautiful refuge from the outside chaos on University Avenue.  Its menu is extensive including house specials such as Saigon Salad with beef tenderloin on watercress, Salmon in Chardonnay baked with tomatoes and served with Jasmine Rice, and Roasted Cornish Game Hen with deep fried coconut rice cakes.  Especially fun is the Assorted Meat and Seafood on Griddle cooked on a tabletop grill.  Owners Ngoan Dang and Mai Nguyen are making every effort to keep the business going during these trying times.  Visit soon or call 651-290-2585 for takeout orders or reservations.  Also visit their website at  Do it soon!