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Battambang report (with some off-menu items)

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Had lunch with friends from work - one of my (Khmer-speaking) friends pre-ordered (including some home-style Cambodian dishes that are not on the menu), and half of my party was ethnic Cambodian, so I feel pretty confident that I didn't get food that was tweaked to Western or Chinese tastes.

The main difference between the food I had here and the food I've had in other Cambodian restaurants (Chev Sovan in Campbell, Angkor Borei in SF, and a couple of tourist-friendly places in Siem Riep) were the much heavier use of lime juice (to the point of mouth-puckering sourness, so that it was the dominant flavor), and the omnipresent funkiness of fermented fish paste.

We had:
Stir-fried catfish and bamboo shoots, with a mild red lemongrass sauce
Banana blossom soup with catfish
Frog legs stir fried with bell pepper and green beans
Thuk Krung - a dip made of ground grilled fermented fish, garlic, chilis, fresh fish, and lime juice, served with vegetables (mostly raw cucumbers and eggplant, and steamed broccoli) for dipping
Prahuk Kthis - a dip made of ground pork, cocounut milk, fermented fish, lemongrass and chili, served with the same vegetables as the Thuk Krung
Fried bananas with coconut ice cream

Both stir-fries were pleasant but not memorable - the frog leg one, had it not been made with frog legs, could have passed for a run-of-the-mill Chinese-American stir-fry. Both are on the regular menu (although the bamboo shoot stir fry is offered only with chicken, beef, or pork. Note - there was a lot more bamboo than protein)

The banana blossom soup (the version on the menu comes with salmon) - I have a feeling this one gets toned down for non-Cambodian diners - the intense sourness of the lime juice, plus the funkiness of the fish paste, reminded me of something unpleasant, which embarasses me, because I'd like to think I can appreciate food the way it's supposed to be. Unfortunately, my Western/Chinese palate didn't get this one.

Thuk Krung (off menu)- while this dish also prominently featured fish paste and lime juice, the ratio was much more heavily weighted towards the fish paste, and I loved it. The initial impression is of intense umami - actually, it tastes remarkably like Parmesan cheese - which then gets obliterated by spiciness and sourness. I don't have a high tolerance for spice, but I kept reaching for more because of the remarkable evolution of flavors in each bite.

Prahuk Kthis (I was told this was on the menu, but I can't find it on either the online menu or the takeout menu) - this flavor profile (sweet from coconut milk, mild funkiness from fermented fish, tang from lemongrass, and a more approachable level of heat for me) was the most familiar to me from other Cambodian restaurants - similar to amok, but spicy. This was delicious.

Finally, I usually avoid cooked bananas in any form, but the fried bananas were perfectly fried, and slightly underripe (which is the only way I can tolerate cooked bananas), and while the coconut ice cream would have been unremarkable on its own, I enjoyed it with the banana.

An aside - I had originally asked to have the lunch at Phnom Phenh House - I've seen the lukewarm reviews here but I thought I would have a better shot at getting a good meal if I had had my friends with me - but the general consensus is that it's "too expensive, and not really Cambodian".

Battambang
850 Broadway St
Oakland, CA
510-839-8815

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  1. Ankgor Borei in SF has prahok on the menu. It's one of my favorite things there.

    1. Repeat visit.

      This time, went with a predominantly Caucasian group, with no ethnic Khmer - only ordered one of the dishes I had last time (the off-menu prahuk kthis) - they dialed way down on the fermented fish paste, and completely eliminated the spice. I actually asked for "medium spicy", figuring they would make it somewhere around the level of Champa Garden's medium (to me, pretty hot), but both the prahuk kthis and the calamari salad had barely discernible heat, causing their flavor profiles to veer strongly toward the sweet side, without the heat to balance them. I think they also hold back on the lime juice for non-Cambodians - I haven't had the calamari salad before, but I've had the similar crab salad, and I remember it being more balanced. I didn't order the one I was really curious about (the lime blossom soup) - which had been mouth-puckeringly sour and deeply funky when I went with Cambodian friends - will do that on a future trip.

      Excellent:
      Num banchev - Cambodian crepe (very similar to Vietnamese banh xeo) - this is my favorite version of the egg/rice flour/coconut milk crepe (I've also tried Binh Minh Quan's, BC Deli's, and Phnom Penh's) - instead of having seafood/chicken/pork cooked into the crepe, the proteins are minced and seasoned and folded into a cooked crepe. The crepe itself was very tender and had a pronounced coconut milk flavor. The filling was very flavorful (one problem I've had with other versions is that the proteins get overcooked, and are often inadequately seasoned).

      Bye Leeng - Fried rice with chicken, cabbage, carrot and cucumber - I know, right? Fried rice?!! Something I would never have ordered, but my friend was being cautious and wanted to make sure there was something that appealed to everyone, This was delicious! Light, white, fluffy, greaseless, it brought to mind some of the better versions of Yanghchow-style fried rice that I've had. Except it was shot through with (Thai?) basil, or something similar to it, and chunks of tender, flavorful chicken. I don't even remember the vegetables being there.

      Probably excellent, but I only had a very small mouthful so can't really tell:
      Slarb Moarn Bourk - boneless chicken wings stuffed with ground pork, roasted peanuts,
      bean thread, black fungus, lemon grass and spices
      Baksei Trung Kor - fried boneless quail stuffed with ground pork, bean threat, onions, ground peanuts and spices

      Would have been excellent had they just been spicier:
      Prahuk Khtiss (off menu - ground pork, fermented fish paste, coconut milk, lemongrass, chili, served with raw green beans, cucumber, and eggplant for dipping) - I had to really dig to get that "Parmesan cheese" flavor I loved so much last time, and without the heat, it was a little sweet. Still tasty, but I'll make sure to ask for it spicy next time.
      Nhorm Yihoeur - calamari salad with mint, red and green peppers, in tamarind dressing - same problem - without the heat (and with a lighter hand on the acid), it was too sweet.

      Very good:
      Amok Trei (catfish steamed with coconut milk, lemongrass in a banana leaf) the catfish was very sweet (as in, not muddy-tasting) - I think a slightly stronger lemongrass presence would have made it even better. Still, really good.
      Moarn Ang - charbroiled marinated chicken - tender, juicy, also a little sweet, but really good with a squeeze of lime.
      Imperial rolls - well seasoned filling, but I think the thick (double layer) of rice sheet, followed by the inner layer of lettuce, made too many layers before you got to the filling.

      Disappointing:
      Battambang noodles (essentially, pad thai) - kind of gloppy, and way too sweet. Still, not bad - one miss in 10 dishes.

      -----
      Battambang
      850 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94607

      Angkor-Borei Restaurant
      3471 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110

      6 Replies
      1. re: daveena

        Thanks for the follow-up report. I wonder what would have happened if you had told them you'd had the Prahuk Khtiss with your Khmer friends and wanted it exactly the way they made it for them?

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          Planning to do that next time... I was with a bunch of people I had just met, and was playing it safe (I guess I'm guilty of the same thing the restaurant was, in assuming people wouldn't like the more pungent flavors)... also didn't realize exactly how much they'd tone down the spiciness.

          1. re: daveena

            Daveena, thanks for the reports! I'm in Oakland now and walked past Battambang today. Based on their menu, I got the feeling the place is serious, and your reports confirm that. It sounds like I need to ask them to make things really spicy and sour, like they like it.

            Would you say this is the best Cambodian place in Oakland? Any opinions about Vietnamese restaurants in Oakland? (I'll also search "Vietnamese Oakland" separately and see what comes up.)

            1. re: Pan

              I've only been to Battambang and the Oakland Chinatown branch of Phnom Penh - Battambang was definitely better. Also, if you love the deep funky fermented fish notes in Cambodian food, you should definitely try the Lao-style dishes (esp the larb) at Champa Garden, on the other side of the lake.

              I'll start a new thread for the Vietnamese question, so more people will see it...

              Edited to add: Just realized that I recognize you from the Manhattan boards, not the Bay Area - welcome! Is this a visit, or a move?

              1. re: daveena

                This is a visit. Thanks, daveena.

                1. re: daveena

                  Alright, here's my report:

                  I went to Battambang for lunch today. Based on my meal, I think the place is good, probably very good, and definitely worth trying if you're in the area, but I'm not sure I'd recommend for San Franciscans to go to the East Bay just for a meal there. Then again, I tried only two things. The portions are humongous; don't do what I did (eat there solo).

                  I ordered the following:

                  30. Baksei Trung Kor (Cripsy friend boneless quails [actually, contained leg bones] stuffed with ground pork, bean threads, onions and ground peanuts served with pickles and vinegar sauce)

                  15. Yihoeur Char Kroeurng (Calamari Sauteed with onion, fresh mushrooms, ground peanuts and sweet basil in spicy lemon grass sauce), as a lunch special (served with rice and soup of the day [in this case, a mild vegetable soup])

                  I asked the waitress for the food to be made very spicy and sour like she likes it, explaining that I haven't been to Cambodia but lived in Malaysia for two years. She suggested putting the sauce on the side and I said, no, have them cook the dish with the sauce.

                  The quails had a somewhat Thai-like taste to me and were very tasty.

                  The calamari was indeed served solidly spicy. I asked for lime (actually lemon was given). The waitress was surprised, saying it was sour enough for her, but I felt some additional lemon improved the dish. It was tasty, and didn't taste quite like anything I've had before -- a sort of curry with a bit of holy basil and so forth -- though it didn't blow me away. I was glad the waitress suggested ordering the dish as a lunch special, because she said the dinner portion would have been bigger, and this portion was way too much for one person to eat.

        2. Had a really lackluster lunch today - ordered three items I've enjoyed here before.

          Had the eggplant with pork, which was good. The fried rice that impressed me so much a few months ago was underseasoned today, and not as fluffy as before. Stuffed chicken wings were a little dry (the filling, that is), and tasted one-dimensional.

          Anyway, seems like I have better luck either 1) at dinner or 2) with Cambodian speakers in the party.

          1. I went to Battambang for lunch today for two reasons: one, it's right across the road from Oakland Marriot where I usually stay when I'm in town on business and, two, anything which daveena recommends on Chowhound, I'd definitely want to try.

            I've been to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat but must admit that my meals there have all been in hotels, and I've not tried the kind of street food/homecooking cuisine which Battambang offered, hence any comparison would be unfair.

            But I did detect an absence of "prahok" (Thai: kapi; fermented fish sauce) in the air when I stepped into the restaurant. That's a bad sign - any Cambodian eatery with no scent of prahok floating in the air will definitely raise doubts as to its authenticity.

            We ordered:
            - Amok Trei, which was delicious but not spicy at all;
            - Cambodian chicken curry, again, we did not detect any chilli-spice despite telling the manageress that we wanted an "authentic" Cambodian version;
            - Char Banleh Krup Muk, sauteed vegetables - the prahok was distinctly missing from this dish! In Siem Reap, I tried sauteed vegetables & they came topped with pungent but very flavorsome "trei ngiat" (dried fish) every time. Battambang's version is similar to what you get in Chinese restaurants nearby;
            - Crabmeat fried rice (bland and not spicy at all).

            The desserts were great though - the fried banana & coconut ice-cream was delicious, and so was the pudding-like steamed jackfruit with coconut in banana leaf.

            It's quite a satisfying meal, and the service is good. But I wouldn't specifically go back there again if there are other food choices around.

            1 Reply
            1. re: klyeoh

              Thanks for the report - unfortunately, they do cater toward what they perceive as the tastes of their clientele, and you have to really fight for them to make dishes authentic. They definitely have prahok in the kitchen - the off-menu thuk krung described upthread is basically all prahok and chilis - but I think they're afraid to use it.