Struggling with Cambodian food at Siem Reap
Day 38: Cambodia
Being excited about something can only carry you so far. GirlfriendBites wants to go to Ikea, so I’m charged with the task of finding somewhere to eat that’s not too far from one. A part of me wants to be lazy and just say that today is Sweden Day, but a bigger part of me wants to try something a little more interesting. About fifteen minutes south of Ikea is the Cambodian restaurant Siem Reap in Long Beach, CA. It’s fairly well regarded, but there is some trepidation on account of there not being much of an online consensus on where to go for the best Khmer food in the LA area. But it’s not too far from the land of couches and strange kitchen equipment, so it wins the close decision, somehow, by default.
From the outside it looks like exactly the kind of grimy place that I will love and GFB will not, but once inside its a whole different story. A large open space with a big bar, a dance floor and lots of room between each table. It looks like one of those strangely enormous Chinese restaurants and this place does actually serve Chinese food, as well as Thai and Cambodian. I’d written down the names of some specifically Cambodian dishes, but upon opening the menu, I find that everything is written either in a script I don’t understand or in over simplified English like “Chicken with lemongrass”. Is that Chinese? Thai? Khmer? I have no clue. Some dishes are explained as Cambodian on the menu, but I decide to just ask our very friendly waitress. Two other employees get involved and have a strange level of interest in our being here, but seem genuinely happy about it. Our waitress brings us a plate of deep fried plantains and some sort of chewy coconut cylinder, saying “On the house”. It’s a welcome surprise, even though both were clearly made hours ago.
Now our actual food arrives. Chicken with Thai holy basil, which I’ve read is different from Thai basil or even Thai lemon basil, is placed in front of us. A whole baked catfish, crispy, but with a deep black coloration and an area on the bottom of the head which is so hard that my fork does nothing but bounce off of it, making a sound like two practice Kendo swords smacking into each other. They bring out two skewers of sweetly glazed beef served with a side of old tasting green papaya salad and some complimentary mystery soup, which is basically just a very salty and vaguely meaty broth. I tackle each dish, reserving judgment until I can get a better grasp of it all, but every single dish just seems to have some strange undercurrent of flavor and I can’t tell if it’s the cuisine or the restaurant. GFB tries to figure it out. “If fresh is a taste and not an indication of whether it is actually fresh, then this is the opposite taste of that.” There are some strange, dark flavors buried in everything and I must say, it’s not the most welcoming taste in the world. I’m someone who generally goes into these things with an open mind, even with an expectation that it will be good, but there is something here I just can’t seem to get totally comfortable with. The strange flavor isn’t the sourness that is a part of each dish— which is a taste that I like— but something altogether different. The wait staff take turns checking on us with startling interest as my excitement for the meal has devolved to the point that I just want to make sure that the amount of food we leave on the table looks respectful of the work the restaurant has done for us.
Pretty soon, there is a general feeling of discomfort over us and we just want to get out of here. The food has been consumed to a perfectly acceptable level, so we pay the bill and make it inside the car. In most of the cases like these, I tend to give the country the benefit of the doubt and assume that my dislike is the cause of the restaurant. But today I’m legitimately wondering if there is, for the first ever, a cuisine that I just plain don’t like. The surprising and new flavors that I have come across with past countries have made me both excited and comforted at the same time. These ones, sadly, did the exact opposite. If I am offered another chance to try Cambodian food somewhere highly recommended, I will surely give it a shot, but at this moment, I’m happy to move on to the next cuisine and leave this stuff be for a while.
1810 E Anaheim St
Long Beach, CA 90813
Food Breakdown: 2 non-alcoholic beverages, 1 appetizer, 2 entrees
Distance From My House: 27.1 miles
Siem Reap Restaurant
1810 E Anaheim St, Long Beach, CA 90813
Your post (very amusing, by the way) reminded me of this post on the General Topics board, "Countries that just don't have good food" which started with a Cambodian post and went on to gather 280 replies.
Apparently it's a matter of some controversy! What about Sophy's? I've heard that one is good.
Though Cambodian food is my least favorite SE Asian food, both here in the states and in SE Asia, I wouldn't completely dismiss the cuisine. There's a pretty brilliant Cambodian restaurant--and Chowhound favorite--called Floating Rock oustside Boston. Moreover, though Siem Reap is a weird restaurant, it's not as bad as noahbites suggests, in my opinion.
The chicken with deep-fried ginger strips was particularly memorable at Sophy's. I recall they had a beef salad there as well, which had mixture of salty/sour tastes, as opposed to spicy/sour Thai beef salads. If you go to Sophy's, you need to be sure to ask the server which menu items are Khmer.
I've noticed that there's an herb I hadn't encountered before, that shows up time and again in Khmer cuisine, especially in some of the soups . At first the taste was off-putting, but as I ate more of it I started to like it.
Sophy's is one of my favorite places. I love their beef salad as well. As for that particular herb, I don't know which one it is, but when I go to Lily's or My Le (fast food Cambodian on the corner of Anaheim and Orange-opposite corners), they almost always have a bitter dish that is extremely bitter. It has a spice that looks like little green peppercorns on a small branch. I got this by accident when I asked for something sour (love sour, but cannot tolerate bitter). Another dish that is good is their omelet, which is not made of eggs at all. Sorry, not sure what it is called off hand.
I had that same dish on my one and only visit to Sophy's, and was not impressed. Basically overcooked gristly chicken and deep fried ginger shreds. And the beef salad looked darned limp on the next table.
My experience at one of the big Cambodian restauants was better than OP's. It was quite a long time ago, I think it was New Paradise. The signature dishes involved a soup with giant prawns and pineapple, and something catfish. They were fine. Sorry I can't help with the undefineable taste, my only thought is do you think it was the "musty" off taste that you sometimes get in catfish and other fresh water fish?.
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Sounds like you didn't care for the fermented fish or shrimp paste (prahok) that is used as a base flavoring in many Cambodian dishes. It can have a strong undercurrent of flavor throughout several dishes. You could stand to educate your palate about these flavors a bit more, as they are also prevalent in the cuisines of Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and other southeast Asian cuisines.
re: E Eto
I'm pretty sure it's not those, since I've had them before in dishes and liked them just fine. If you click the link to the site above, you'll see that this is a project about developing my palate, diving into different cuisines and offering my opinion on what I'm experiencing. I certainly did research on the cuisine before I ate there and really wanted to like it. The food, whether it was the restaurant or the cuisine itself, just wasn't very enjoyable.
re: E Eto
I agree. Some people don't like Fish Sauce, which is OK, but don't judge a countries cuisine because it is "musty". I love Vietnamese food and there are a few dishes and sauces that might take some getting used to. Now, if I don't have the "stinky sauce", it isn't as good.
I've had Cambodian food and it can often be pungent. That was one of the things I liked about it. Did I like Cambodian food as much as Thai or Vietnamese or Lao? No, but there were plenty of good dishes.
having eaten more than a dozen times at siem riep and started to get a handle on their menu, it is clearly my favorite among khmer places in long beach. the fish sauce is strong and ubiquitous and there are splendid exotic herbs (for US palates somewhat bitter and odd), but the food is remarkably similar to what one can eat at good establishments in siem riep, without the pretentions of service. hak heung across the street is also quite good and has even more lively selections but it is often closed for private parties which has bounced me to siem riep several times too many. the newly managed golden villa is also quite delicious with some ambitious offerings that make concessions to occidental palates without compromising the essential character of the cooking, although i have wandered in there at odd hours and it can sometimes be hard to find the staff at those times. whatever other culinary attractions there are in long beach, i find the cambodian places so dominate the scene that i rarely have any other kind of cuisine when i go down there from west la.
i have eaten 15-20 times at siem reap and it is consistently excellent khmer cooking, comparable to what you can eat at good restaurants in its namesake city, though without the sometime pretentious service for the tourists. they do use a lot of fish sauce and the herbs can be unfamiliar and bitter but it's worth expanding the palate to accustom to the different flavors. hak heung across the street is also good and has an even wider menu, but i have so often been turned away because it was booked for private parties that i shifted my loyaty to the endearing siem reap. golden villa under its new management is also interesting in its scope and ambition, although i have tended to show up in off hours when it can be hard to find the staff. the cambodian restaurants in long beach are so special and unique to the area that i rarely eat anything else when i end up there.