Little Mekong, the neighborhood surrounding Western and University Avenue, is eclectic and diverse (much like the people who call it home).
The name comes from the collection of countries that border Mekong River in Southeast Asia; specifically Laos, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, and Thailand. It’s a thriving landscape of immigrant businesses, first established after Hmong refugees resettled in St. Paul’s Frogtown in the 1970’s, that has become of the most vibrant areas of the city.
The Little Mekong food crawl
Silhouette Bakery & Bistro (383 University Ave W) is something like St. Paul’s answer to World Street Kitchen, serving tacos with beef and kimchi, mock duck, carnitas and lemongrass. Their rice bowls, especially the curry potato (pictured) are filling and flavorful. An excellent bakery is an added bonus for those who like it sweet.
Silhouette is also tops for grab-and-go options. And they’re eco-friendly about it as well: all packaging, silverware, to-go bowls, even the plastic cups are either recyclable or biodegradable/compostable.
Much love and respect for that.
Across the street, the sprawling building that once housed elegant Mai Village Vietnamese Restaurant, complete with koi pond and crossable bridge, sits empty. This was certainly a blow to the neighborhood, but the remaining Vietnamese restaurants remind that there is plenty to be excited about.
(And, with plastic over the windows and a dumpster outside, it looks as though something might be happening inside the space as well.)
If Little Mekong proves anything, it’s that a restaurant doesn’t have to be grand, or hip or hot or brand new, to be something truly special:
The best food in the neighborhood can be found in the hole-in-the-walls, the mom-and-pop shops that some might call dives. But “dive” is the wrong word. These are world-class eateries that give you an authentic taste of Far East cuisine in homey, familiar settings.
Trieu Chau (500 University Ave W, St Paul, MN) is a personal favorite for pho. Not only is the rich broth consistently excellent, creating layers of flavor few other soups and stews can, but the service is quick and attentive; when you’re there, you’re family.
But you should certainly try Pho Ca Dao (439 University Ave W, St Paul, MN) as well, as there are some who will tell you that they serve the better bowl of pho.
We generally like to visit both.
Little Szechuan (422 University Ave W, St Paul, MN) is all Szechuan-style hot pot, all day. It’s like fondue for people who want something better than the Melting Pot. You choose your broth, and then everything, from sirloin and tripe to beech mushrooms and Chinese broccoli, that you’d like to cook in it.
It’s best if you share: this is not a meal for one.
Bangkok Thai Deli (333 University Ave W, St Paul, MN) is arguably the best Thai restaurant in the Twin Cities, and their expansion into a former Burger King gave them much more space to prove that to hungry diners. It was also a lesson in how to best repurpose vacant, decades-old corporate storefronts and turn them into something considerably more interesting.
Much love and respect for that as well.
Thai Cafe (371 University Ave W, St Paul, MN) has the city’s best papaya salad (No contest, I say. Disagree? Let me know in the comments what restaurant you believe serves better).
Thai Garden (432 University Ave W, St Paul, MN) serves some amazing larb, as well as a surprisingly extensive menu (20 types) of pho as well. They also have one of the neighborhood’s only patios for outdoor dining; you’ll notice the warm smells coming from Ai Hue Bakery in the adjoining building behind while you eat al fresco.
Beloved Cheng Heng (448 University Ave W, St Paul, MN) is perfection in representing Cambodian cuisine. Large plates of fried shrimp and pickled vegetables, crab wontons and Cambodian eggrolls, Curry Tam Yam with chicken and extra peppers, spice that burns but doesn’t hurt…
That’s really what this is all about.
It’s a daunting list, perhaps. But here’s the thing: They’re all worth a try; it doesn’t matter where you begin. Your favorites will emerge, certainly, but every one of these mentioned is worth at least one visit. Each restaurant unique. Each restaurant is special in its own way. From the faces cooking behind the line, to the smiles when the food is dropped at your table, to the smells, the tastes, the experience, the way you feel when you walk fully satisfied out the door.
At the end of the day, though, this is not just a neighborhood to swing through for a quick bite and then leave behind (though you’re welcome to do that as well). Understanding the culture, trying to emulate your meal at home with ingredients purchased at Ha Tien Grocery Store (353 University Ave W, St Paul, MN), or perusing the shelves at May’s Market (377 University Ave W, St Paul, MN), the oldest Asian supermarket in the Twin Cities, for herbs, spices, and teas, is often even more satisfying.
For perhaps the best introduction to the neighborhood (especially if you haven’t been before), mark June 10 on your calendar for the Little Mekong’s Night Market. The plaza between Little Szechuan and Mai Village acts as the hub for an after-hours market that features the very best of the neighborhood, as well as small businesses from around the Twin Cities as a whole.
Little Mekong, and the surrounding Frogtown that was name enough before the latest cultural designation, is an all-important piece of the city’s cultural fabric. As the the Green Line rolls through, the buildings build higher into the sky and the landscape continues to develop, grow, and change, it becomes clear how much neighborhoods like these come to represent St. Paul as a piece of the larger whole.
A diverse, multi-cultural, and simply delicious, American city.
This country is a melting pot, after all.