In the 1860s and '70s, the Thomas-Dale neighborhood of Saint Paul was named “Froschberg,” or “Frog City,” by its primarily German and Polish population for its ubiquitous marshes and swamps.
Today, although it’s still referred to colloquially as Frogtown, the area is home to a unique restaurant strip that evokes the diverse flavors of Southeast Asia and East Africa. With Hmong, Vietnamese, and Somali immigrants, among others, settling the area in the past few decades and opening up establishments of their own, today’s Frogtown presents gastronomic adventures and palate-widening possibilities.
(And on a shoestring budget, to boot.)
Cambodians, too, have found a home in Frogtown. Fleeing violence wrought by the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge, most arrived in the United States as refugees in the late 1970s and '80s. There are approximately 8,000 Cambodians living in the state of Minnesota, and last year, as the national debate on immigration raged (as it continues to today), here in the TC metro it was the Cambodian community that took centerstage.
It should come as no surprise, then, that one of Frogtown’s many gems is a Cambodian restaurant. Kolap, located on University and Dale, has been serving stellar, down-to-earth Cambodian fare for more than a decade.
Run by Mr. Sarun Pen, who fled Cambodia via a refugee camp in the Philippines, Kolap is far from St. Paul’s best kept secret: The restaurant has been an enduring favorite for parties and banquets in the Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong communities for years, and its sour soup was even declared the single-most delicious bowl of food in the Twin Cities by The New York Times' Frugal Traveler. As a relative newcomer to the delightful cuisines of the Mekong and loyal customer of Kolap, I'm inclined to agree.
While the menu contains standards like egg rolls, spring rolls, various kinds of fried rice, and noodle dishes, it’s the sour soup and Cambodian-style pork dip, in particular, that position Kolap among the Twin Cities’ best Cambodian restaurants. The sour soup is sunshine in a bowl -- nuggets of tender tilapia, pineapple, and bitter melon swim in a tart broth infused with lime, lemongrass, and aromatic cilantro. Pair this with spicy prahok ktiss, a minced pork and pea aubergine dip laced with fish sauce and thinly sliced red chilis. Served with fresh veggies and hillocks of jasmine rice, the bold, earthy flavors of the dip complement the bright and fragrant soup– a satisfying meal best savored on cold days.
With lilting Khmer tunes floating through the establishment from opening to close, a trip to Kolap may well be something of a pilgrimage for people of Cambodian descent living in Minnesota -- a chance to (re)connect with one’s heritage. But for the deeply familiar and unacquainted alike, the food at Kolap is pure nourishment for the soul.
601 N. Dale St., St. Paul