My recent sifting through memories and pictures of Cambodia led me on a quest for Cambodian food here in Los Angeles. If, like me, you usually find yourself at the entrance of a vast Google search, you’ll soon realize there aren’t that many Cambodian restaurants at the end of the tunnel without burning too many miles.
Don’t, I beg, let the surroundings bring you down. When I say hole in the wall, I do mean the simplest of all establishments. Let the smattering of tables, a clutter of wall ornaments and hangings (never fear, Angkor Wat is here – try to find it as you make your way through a delicious meal), a vending machine, and an ancient television be your friends for the evening.
Cambodian food will remind you of Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine, sometimes in a definite way, sometimes when you least expect it. From my travels to the country, I found it mellow and very pleasant fare in general, with a lot of fruit and vegetable concoctions amid the general curry and meat combinations abundant in Southeast Asia. I ask the server for recommendations on what he considers the most authentic among the slew of dishes the menu offers, the philosophy being, when the kitchen is tiny, go for the best sellers. So here we go.
The French steak with fried rice is a complete success. Order this dish at Phnom Penh and you're in for a treat. The chopped bits of steak are cooked in a mild marinade which allows for the flavour of the meat to come through even though it is well done. They arrive piled atop perfectly cooked fried rice: not too dry, not too greasy. A few large leaves of lettuce hug the mound of rice on one side, and an egg idles on another, if you'd like to mix it up as you eat. Of particular note is a tiny dish of lemon-pepper sauce, a Cambodian specialty, which accompanies the lot. Be warned that it is as lemony and as peppery as you can possibly imagine, but delectable in tiny dabs with your rice and steak.
Next, the shrimp with Chinese broccoli. Simplicity is what comes to mind with this dish. The succulent shrimp arrive in jumbo portions, sautéed mildly with a hint of chillies. They're slightly addictive, and you might find your chopsticks making straight for another, seconds after polishing off your first scrumptious little crustacean. It's the massive bed of Chinese broccoli that suffers from the simplicity, however, and while healthy and relatively tasty, it fails to hook one's appetite. A bit of seasoning might have done the trick.
Last but not least, the hot and sour fish soup. It is a very, very mild cousin of the spicier Thai tom yum soup that you might be used to. The delectable broth is laden with sweet basil sprigs, button mushrooms, chunks of pineapple and catfish, and diced tomatoes. I’m not sure about the tomatoes in this combination and found myself casting them ashore in my bowl, but this is a matter of personal taste. And, not to pick a bone, but...well, there were plenty of bones to be picked in the chopped up catfish pieces.
It’s a family run business, and since we were the only customers on a weekday evening, I can only hope the delicious food finds itself in many stomachs via delivery options, or during lunch hours and weekends. If the decor were changed, and the restaurant was marketed differently while retaining its simple aspects, I have no doubt it would find a clientele to shell out much more than it charges.
A few end notes: Service was attentive par force (we were a bit hard to avoid, as the only diners), and pleasant. Hot green tea is free, and served liberally if you ask for it. This is a cash-only establishment; luckily, you really don’t need too much cash to eat well here. Each dish is between $5.05 and $11.15, if you’d like a specific high and low. Parking is easily found on Portia Street, right outside the restaurant.
1305 Portia Street, Los Angeles, CA 90026
Telephone: 213 250 5733
Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. – 9 p.m.
RATING: 4.5 OUT OF 5 COCONUTS, purely based on food, not ambiance