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Where do you take a Cambodian monk out to eat? ...or... My Wat Khmer adventure (Beverly Blvd.)

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This will no doubt be perhaps one of the more unusual posts to grace the LA board. I hope you enjoy the story...

While driving home from a friend's sushi party in one of the artist (i.e. squatter) lofts downtown, my Lovely Tasting Assistant (LTA) and I noticed some twinkly lights on the south side of Beverly Blvd, at number 1720. We pulled a u-turn and closer inspection revealed the curious presence of a Cambodian (Khmer) temple.

Now I'd driven this way hundreds of times before and seemed to recall seeing it just once... I could never find it again. This night it had clearly made itself known to us, like an apparition in the night.

Now most regular readers of my posts will know that my LTA and I recently returned from 7 months in Asia-- 3 weeks of which we spent in Cambodia. We couldn't resist the call... we pulled into the parking lot, confusing the parking attendant greatly, as he spoke little english. We were unable to understand if he was trying to turn us away (he must have thought we were in the wrong place), or perhaps he was telling us to come back in 30 minutes, or perhaps he was telling us that we could wait inside for 30 minutes. No matter, we had encountered many imponderable situations like this during our time in Cambodia, and so knew the best course was to smile, say "aw kohn," ("thank you") and go inside.

(In the end, nobody seemed to mind... Cambodians aren't really sticklers for rules anyway.)

My primary motive in pulling in was to suss out some info on the Khmer population in this area of Beverly and the Khmer grub situation--could they possibly have some kind of weekend food festival like Wat Thai in North Hollywood?

I met some men smoking and talking out front and through more incredibly broken english they directed us inside. "Aw kohn" I said. They smiled.

Inside the main lobby of the temple was a man sleeping on a sofa. (just like in Cambodia). We wandered into the area outside the main temple where we were met by curious stares and questions by yet more people who spoke little english, though all of them seemed to be amused by my attempts to say "hello" ("jom reap sua") and "thank you" in Khmer. We got a small crowd of people around us (...again, just like when we were in Cambodia!...I was like a lighthouse beacon with my bright blonde hair) and eventually one bold man named "Ron" took the reins and began to show us around.

I shifted the topic swiftly to Khmer food. He immediately started offering my LTA and I food and gave us a tour of the kitchen in the back. "Food? Yes, yes! Always food here." Now we of course were full of sushi, but he pressed a plastic spoon into my hand and insisted I take a taste of this clear sour broth soup sitting on a table in the kitchen. I have no idea what was in it-- it was not as strictly pungent not as sour as tom yam. It was mellower and ever so slightly sweet. It could have been a fish broth. It was quite tasty.

I told him about our visit to Cambodia and how I rememeber the food being quite sweet in general, and he said "Sweet? Yes, yes!" and he removed the lid of a pot on the stove which was filled half full with some thick black stew with multiple whole fish bodies suspended in the gel. I did not taste this.

From what I was able to tell from Ron, they do have a food festival during the Khmer New Year in April, but I was unable to get more details.

We eventually became quite a friendly curiosity, as the monks in their orange robes began filing out to talk to us. One woman introduced us to the master of the temple, who we knew to greet traditionally with palms pressed together with a short bow. Once he realized the extent of my Khmer was "Hello", he seemed to quickly lose interest in me.

We did however talk at length with a young monk with a broad smile and long Buddha ears, who had arrived just 7 months earlier from Cambodia. This was fascinating to me... because in general, Cambodia is not the kind of place you can just up and leave. The government is horribly corrupt and most people are so poor they never leave their village. If they're lucky, they can get to Vietnam.

How in the world this guy got through the system to America is beyond me... I do know that in both Thailand and Cambodia the monkhood is seen as the only way out of that kind of provincial lifestyle. I never realized that getting out could mean coming all the way to America... an unimaginable feat for probably 99% of the population.

My LTA and I did speak with him at length about religion and buddhism, and he told us that he rarely leaves the temple. We asked him if he is allowed to leave, and he said "yes, on the weekends, when I do not study" so we offered to take him out and show him around LA. "In your car?" he said. He could hardly believe the offer and enthusiastically took our phone number and email address.

We'll see if he calls us... if he does, maybe we'll take him our to Wat Thai, or Hsi Lai Temple...... or the beach? Who knows. Where do you take a Cambodian monk for a day out on the town?? And where do you take him to eat? (Vegetarian, obviously)

Truly, there is so much going on here that I'm not even sure where to begin.

Mr Taster

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  1. I'd take him to the Saturday SM farmer's market, then stroll a bit down 3rd, then maybe a brief trip in the mall, then down to Venice Beach along the strand, perhaps then on the beach a bit, then back into the city perhaps visiting the Exhibition Park Rose Garden or the Griffith Park Observatory if there's time. Perhaps resist the temptation to have the Rose Garden as your vegetarian lunch stop as you should find something reasonable in Santa Monica.

    1 Reply
    1. re: broncosaurus

      Farmers market is a great idea. What a fascinating contrast that will be for him since he will of course be familiar with the multitiudes of markets in Cambodia.

      When he sees the prices for comparable vegetables, he'll probably plotz.

      Mr Taster

    2. Let us know how it goes, it would be fun to see his reaction to the prices (and everything else).

      1. ask him where he wants to go. i'm sure he has many visions of places he wants to visit in the southland dancing around in his head.

        and have fun! sounds like you'all will have a blast no matter where you go and what you eat.

        1. Great story and lucky for you to have such a nifty experience. I spent a month in Thailand and 2 years in Japan. I discovered that most Asains love nature expecially the Thai. I suspect the Cambodians do as well. (I actually spent a day at a Cambodian refugee camp at the Thai border). If this monk calls you ask him where he might like to visit. Otherwise, I'm sure anything nature oriented he would love. IE public gardens, the beach, mountains, countryside...etc. Also, ask him if he is able to eat food prepared in a public restaurant. I would suspect so, but some choose not to do such because of vows they take and rules they follow. At any rate I'm sure this would be a fabulous experience for everyone involved...

          Keep us posted. :)KQ

          1. Interesting your point re not eating in public restaurants... certainly I knew that we would pay for him but I never realized that he might not even be able to accept the offer of dining in a public restaurant. Maybe I should start buying some vegetables to cook for him at home :)

            Mr Taster

            1. If they're serving fish at the temple, you might want to ask him directly about how strict the vegetarianism here.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Jerome

                True.... although when we were there, the temple was hosting some kind of Khmer delegation from all over the US so I assumed the food was for them, not the monks.... however I can't imagine a synagogue cooking up juicy pork loin for visiting priests. But then again, Buddhism really is a more inclusive religion!

                Mr Taster

                1. re: Mr Taster

                  There are buddhists I know that won' t ordermeat at a restaurant butif there at someone's home and there's meat served, they eatit because it's worse to waste it. There's a nice image of a tibetan 'guru' who was known to eat only fish entrails which had been discarded.
                  There's a story inthe new yorker about a khmer chef who had trained in france and was working in new york. He told a story of how the cambodian women in PHnom pehn (before lon nol's time even) would walk into the market and admire a beautiful big fish that was being sold by a Vietnamese merchant, and sigh wistfully and walk away. A minute later, the merchant would chase after the woman and tell her that amazingly, the fish she had been admiring had just died and perhaps she might be interested in buying the remains.

                  The chef had gone back to Cambodia fora brief time in the 90's to open a restaurant and reteach people how to cook the classical haute cuisine and palace dishes. As stated, it's an old New Yorker profile.

                  1. re: Jerome

                    that would be Cambodian born executive chef Sottha Khunn who has been at Le Cirque .... it was a great profile. can't remember what issue it was - I'll look for it but it might take awhile.

              2. I used to go to Hsi Lai Temple a lot, and my family still goes quite often. Anyway, I've seen Cambodian monks visiting numerous times when I was there so I guess that could be a hint. There's a dining hall at the temple ($5/person)

                1. I'm Buddhist and have eaten meat with monks in SE Asia. Are you sure that your future guest is a vegetarian? Also, is he a monk? Almost every Buddhist male in SE Asia goes into a monastary for a few months at some time in their lives: haircut, saffron robe, food bowl--bingo, you're a monk for a bit. As someone above suggested, ask him where he wants to go.

                  1. what a wonderful story, thanks for sharing. :)

                    i work with international students and i find that when they are given the opportunity to tour LA by an american, they want an american experience. similarly, if you had met an equally hospitable native in cambodia, you probably would not like to be taken to some western restaurant. you want something you couldn't find in a guidebook.

                    broncosaurus' suggestion sounds like a great idea. walking around downtown LA is also kinda neat because there are so many ethnic neighborhoods (old chinatown, olvera st, little tokyo) in addition to grand central market and good ol' american restaurants such as the pantry or other american restaurants we would typically brush off as boring.

                    1. How funny! That Ron guy is probably my dad. 5'4ish with a mustache?

                      The Khmer Festival (Cambodian New Year) is this weekend. There will be lots of tasty and inexpensive food. There will be barbeque beef sticks, papaya salad, khmer-style fried chicken, fried bananas, fried taro, fried sweet potatoes, and a lot more. Each item costs about a dollar or two. There is also a vast assortment of Cambodian dishes inside the temple that are free. The monks get first dibs though. Anyway, come out and ejoy all the food and festivities with us. Hopefully, I'll see some of you there. =)

                      8 Replies
                      1. re: zandeeloh

                        I wanna go! Where is this festival and what hours?

                        1. re: Iateitup

                          I had beef sticks and papaya salad. The papaya salad was yummy and the beef sticks were also good but a little too chewy for my liking. =)

                          Today didn't really draw a lot of people but I think tomorrow will. Everyone is welcome to come.

                          1720 Beverly Blvd
                          Los Angeles, CA 90026
                          Hours: 9-10 pm
                          (Union/Beverly)

                          1. re: zandeeloh

                            I went ahead and gave you your own topic on this, as this information will grab more chowhound attentions if it has its own thread-- particularly if you compare it to Wat Thai weekend food festival, a long-standing Chowhound favorite.

                            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/391790

                            Mr Taster

                        2. re: zandeeloh

                          Is that the festival in Long Beach this weekend?

                          1. re: zandeeloh

                            Yes, I believe Ron fit that description! Tell him that the blonde barang that wandered into the temple those few months ago says hello.

                            I am very happy to hear about the Khmer new year festival... but sadly I am currently in Taiwan and then Japan, eating my way around these two countries with my newlywedded wife. But please post your reactions to the food and tell us all about it.

                            As for what happened since my initial post, sadly I never did hear back from that monk. I have wondered if that grumpy head monk chastised him for even considering going out and about LA with an American. Please let him know that the offer to show him around LA is still open!

                            By the way, I don't remember the monk's name, but I remember it being distinctly un-monklike.... his name translated to something non-humble like "ultimate strength" or some such super macho thing. But the monk himself was an incredibly kind, young guy with very friendly eyes. Please tell him hello and we would still love to take him out!

                            Mr Taster

                            1. re: Mr Taster

                              And we are all waiting to hear about your stories and impressions from your journey... have a continued safe trip and great eating! And don't forget - Sumimasenkedo - otearai wa doko desuka? ;-)

                              1. re: Mr Taster

                                Well, you should come next year. The temple has one every year! My sister went to Taiwan and Japan last year. She says that you should try the shaved ice dessert in Taiwan.

                                I asked my dad about you and he remembers you. =) Was the monk named Lok Hai?

                                1. re: zandeeloh

                                  I really don't remember the monk's name... I have a problem remembering anything apart from "jhom reap sua" and "ah kohn" :)

                                  As long as we're not traveling, we'll be at next year's festival for sure! By the way, Taiwanese shaved ice desserts are quite common in the san gabriel valley at places like Bin Bin Konjac but we have already had plenty of them here :)

                                  Mr Taster

                            2. maybe he'd like a taco.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: markethej

                                Good fish tacos, that's the ticket.