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Building the $957 million Central Corridor light-rail project in St. Paul and Minneapolis translates into detours, dust and delays up and down its 11-mile route. Nowhere is the disruption more evident than a particularly delicious 12-block stretch that starts just west of the State Capitol.
Here's the secret: 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 this St. Paul neighborhood one of the Twin Cities' most diverse and compelling food destinations.
HOMI RESTAURANT MEXICANO
The well-worn term "home cooking" is truly applicable at tiny Homi Restaurant Mexicano, where co-owners Hortencia Reyes and Miguel Lopez (Homi is a blend of the first two letters of their first names) turn out a wide array of classic just-like-Mom's cooking -- if Mom hails from Veracruz, Mexico. The made-from-scratch fare includes pork rinds in a bright salsa verde, chicken smothered in a rich mole, hearty red sauce enchiladas, cool cactus leaf salads, beef tongue tacos and burritos with all the right fixings, deeply flavorful slow-cooked stews and more. A bonus: Lopez and Reyes are two of the nicest people on the avenue.
TÀI HÒA BBQ
The soundtrack to Tài Hòa BBQ is the constant thud-thud-thud of a meat cleaver landing on a cutting board, making quick work of flavorful poultry and pork. This busy takeout counter feels custom made for the don't-feel-like-cooking crowd, focusing on Chinese-style barbecue crossed with Vietnamese flavors. Whole roast ducks and chickens, plus pork by the pound, are the main attraction, along with a small selection of prepared salads. Cash only.
When craving boilerplate Vietnamese, it's easy to put Que Nha on the default setting, for its appealing atmosphere, friendly staff, fits-in-the-budget prices and menu of fresh, familiar, well-prepared favorites peppered with a few offbeat surprises. It's the Vietnamese destination that everyone would hope to find in their neighborhood.
NGON VIETNAMESE BISTRO
The street's most ambitious restaurant, hands down, is Ngon Vietnamese Bistro, 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. Add Truong's passion for regional craft beers -- and a knack for charcuterie-making -- along with a charming France-meets-Indochina setting, and it's easy to see why Ngon is a game-changing restaurant. Two other notes: There's no better pho, anywhere, and the sweet patio out back is sheltered from the construction madness.
TRUNG NAM FRENCH BAKERY
The superb Trung Nam French Bakery keeps the neighborhood in croissants: enormous, golden and gloriously buttery things filled with all the right ingredients, from apricot and apple to chocolate and almond, all at rock-bottom prices. Of special note are the raisin-studded Danish-style spirals, and the crispy cinnamon-dusted palmiers, meant to be savored over a cup of strong, sweet pressed coffee blended with condensed milk. The kitchen also puts out a textbook banh mì, a fantastic grab-and-go lunch for $2.50. Don't be put off by the forbidding chain-link fence or the this-used-to-be-a-Popeye's exterior; this place is the real deal. 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 everything they should be -- moist and tender, crowned with simple, well-made icings -- and the raised versions are even better, a delicate, not-greasy bite enrobed in twinkling sugar, sticky glaze or thick chocolate icing. The modest selection includes an old-school apple fritters, long johns, bear claws and other beloved doughnut-shop fare, all at remarkably low prices. Opens at 6:30 a.m. daily.
BIG DADDY'S BARBEQUE
Forget about the GPS: Follow your nose to highly aromatic 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 they get their sauces and sides right, too. Truly a standard-setting treasure.
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, soups steaming with lemongrass and kaffir lime and sweet basil, complex curries and soul-satisfying stir-fries. Dessert? Order one of the fresh-cut coconuts and drink it with a straw. The surroundings? Utilitarian. The hospitality? Heartfelt.
Pathbreaking Little Szechuan isn't a standard-issue Minnesota/Chinese restaurant. Sure, its vast menu does occasionally cater to mainstream tastes, but it 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. As in, put-the-fire-department-on-speed-dial heat.
If there were awards for Most Striking Ambience, Mai Village would sprint right past the winner's circle and stride straight into Lifetime Achievement status. It's a stunner. The kitchen isn't as enterprising. Expect to encounter a long list of Vietnamese basics (those who lean more toward the American side of American-Asian dining spectrum will appreciate the twist on chow mein), although one memorable experience is a seven-course spread devoted to the virtues of beef.
HA TIEN ORIENTAL MARKET
The avenue is home to several Asian supermarkets, but bare-bones Ha Tien Oriental Market stands out not just for its impressive selection of value-priced produce or its wide array of fresh and frozen seafood. No, the true star is the store's modest and affordable deli, where a hanging rack of fragrant whole-roasted ducks and small pigs double as effective point-of-purchase advertising. A dozen hot items aren't the usual food court fare. Instead, there's enormous salt-crusted shrimp, steamed crab, glazed chicken wings, roasted quail and pork tongue stir-fried with bamboo shoots and red peppers. Other draws include plus-sized steamed buns jammed with a savory pork and black mushrooms, and a few tantalizing rice-ready sauces -- a fiery chile-pork skin, or a funky roasted galangal-onion -- along with other tempting grab-and-go items.
BANGKOK THAI DELI & SUPERMARKET
The sign outside at Bangkok Thai Deli & Supermarket promises "Real Thai food," and it delivers. Ignore the standard-issue supermarket and head straight into what looks like a 1980s food court, which ought to bear a sign that reads, "Chile peppers live here." The exhaustive menu covers plenty of ground (from tom-yom soup to spicy stir-fried soft-shell crab) as it whirls through all the Thai flavor foundations, but the blazing red and green curry paste dishes are the ones to order. And order. And order.
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