Even with light-rail construction, University Avenue isn't as bad as it looks. There are hassles, yes, but the reality is that it's relatively easy to navigate among the many restaurants, bakeries and stores that make a 12-block stretch of St. Paul one of the Twin Cities' most compelling food destinations.
The well-worn term "home cooking" is truly applicable at tiny Homi Restaurant Mexicano, where co-owners Hortencia Reyes and Miguel Lopez turn out a wide array of classic just-like-Mom's cooking -- if Mom hails from Veracruz, Mexico.
This busy takeout counter focuses on Chinese-style barbecue crossed with Vietnamese flavors. Whole roast ducks and chickens, plus pork by the pound, are the main attraction. Cash only.
W849 University Av. W. • 651-290-8552 When craving boilerplate Vietnamese, it's easy to put Que Nha on the default setting, for its appealing atmosphere, fits-in-the-budget prices and menu of fresh, well-prepared favorites plus a few offbeat surprises.
The street’s most ambitious restaurant, hands down, is Ngon, where chef/co-owner Hai Truong twists carefully crafted Vietnamese flavors, Western cooking styles and organic, locally raised ingredients into a one-of-a-kind dining experience. Two other notes: There’s no better pho, anywhere, and the sweet patio out back is sheltered from the construction madness.
The superb Trung Nam keeps the neighborhood in croissants: enormous, golden and gloriously buttery things filled with all the right ingredients all at rock-bottom prices. Of special note are the raisin-studded Danish-style spirals, and the cinnamon-dusted palmiers. The kitchen also puts out a banh mì, a fantastic grab-and-go lunch for $2.50. Be prepared: Cash only.
At SugaRush, the magic word is doughnuts. Keoni Nguyen’s and Susie Path’s friendly shop is a real find. The hand-rolled cake doughnuts are moist and tender, crowned with simple, well-made icings — and the raised versions are even better. Opens at 6:30 a.m. daily.
Forget about the GPS: Follow your nose to Big Daddy’s Barbeque, where time-tested, hickory-based smokehouse barbecue reigns supreme. Gene “Big Daddy” Sampson and his fellow pitmasters Ron Whyte and Bob Edmond know their way around pork, beef and chicken — and how — and get their sauces and sides right, too.
It’s easy to overlook low-profile Cheng Heng, but that would be a grave error. This gem of a place showcases Cambodian cuisine in all of its eye-grabbing, full-flavored glory. Start with the bright nhum salad or some of the Twin Cities’ most memorable spring rolls before segueing into such gems as tender mussels with ginger and jalapeño, complex curries and soul-satisfying stir-fries.
Little Szechuan excels at offering what might be considered offbeat in the Midwest but is comfort food in Sichuan: pork kidney slices in a fiery chile sauce, stir-fried pea tips, honey-glazed duck, shredded pork with dried tofu, eggplant sautéed in a pungent fish sauce. And heat. Lots of heat.
The sign outside promises "Real Thai food," and it delivers. The exhaustive menu covers plenty of ground (from tom-yom soup to spicy stir-fried soft-shell crab) but the blazing red and green curry paste dishes are the ones to order. And order. And order.