THE DISH of silky slices of lime-cured salmon looks like a platter of crudo, the trendy Italian-style raw fish. But the flavors are pure Cambodian -- Asian fish sauce punctuated by the sharp citrus jolt of shredded kaffir lime leaf, perfumed with a wild assortment of fresh leafy herbs.
You'd never know it from the scarcity of Cambodian restaurants, but L.A. is home to the largest expatriate community outside Cambodia. Still, Cambodian cuisine and restaurants serving it remain largely undiscovered.
But Kansas transplant Kaylene Men hopes to change that at her new restaurant, Golden Villa, in the Cambodia Town district of Long Beach.
She loves to show off the restaurant's salmon salad. Men is convinced that dishes such as this one -- with their proximity to the flavors of Thai and Vietnamese food -- will be an ambassador for the cuisine of her native country.
One reason we've seen so few such spots is the absence of a restaurant ownership tradition among Cambodians. Here and in the homeland, most restaurants are Chinese-owned. They double as banquet halls for weddings and other festivities. Not only are they often closed to the general public on weekends, but their Cambodian dishes, scattered throughout the largely Chinese menus, are also frustratingly unidentified in English.
BUT AFTER almost three decades of radical cultural adjustments among Cambodian Americans, we are starting to see a few welcome changes among the neighborhood's restaurants. At the moment, Golden Villa's plan is the most ambitious.
The restaurant's evolving direction is the handiwork of Men and her partner, Sophy Khut, longtime proprietor of the well-loved Sophy's Cambodian and Thai restaurant nearby. They've hired chef Lim Kim, who for eight years ran her own pan-Asian restaurant, Park Café, in the Boston Visitor's Center. Kim's brilliant talent for improvising with Cambodian ingredients is evident in the collection of avant-garde and traditional salads she has developed.
Minty, floral and bitter nuances weave their way into her inventive plates. Her flavor combinations are carefully calibrated and balanced. A julienned green mango salad with crunchy deep-fried catfish chunks is accented with minuscule dried shrimp for crunch; raw-cured shrimp tossed with slivered red pepper, bean sprouts and water spinach (known in Chinese as ong choy) comes scattered with a mince of roasted peanuts.
A dish called beef and watercress salad (actually ong choy) exemplifies the bitter-sweet flavor combination that's a familiar mark of Cambodian cooking.
MANY dishes are strictly traditional: duck foot salad or pork blood rice porridge with pickled beans. The classic prahok katih, a dish that shows Cambodian cuisine's close relation to northern Thai food, resembles a bowl of Texas chili until you taste the creamy coconut milk mingled with ground pork and spiked with salty fish paste. You dip the accompanying raw vegetables in it. Similarly served is trei ang, a whole broiled fish accompanied by lightly pickled vegetables and a platter of varied raw vegetables that includes the quinine-bitter sadao flowers. You pick up a chunk of fish with a few herbs and vegetables, and then dip the bundle into an accompanying tart-sweet tamarind sauce before popping the packet into your mouth.
Men recommends her favorite, karko, a soupy stew loaded with a garden's harvest of fresh vegetables, including Asian pumpkin and two types of eggplant in a choice of vegetarian, fish or chicken versions. It's amped up with shreds of kaffir lime leaf and thickened with roasted rice powder, "a wonderful winter dish," she says. The small side plate of tiny, lethally hot pepper slices are there to add a spicy kick to your bowlful.
Of the many curries and stir-fried dishes, the juicy and entrancingly seasoned cubed beef lok lak, mounded over a bed of herb-spiked lettuces, is the least foreign for American tastes.
The restaurant, across from a branch of the Long Beach Public Library, is on the second story of a mini-mall. Previously the Angkor Supper Club and then a Thai restaurant, it's in a huge space. Mercifully, it's divided into two rooms, one for entertainment and parties and another with a warm polished wood bar that's more intimate.
If you love Thai and Vietnamese food, Golden Villa's kitchen will happily move your palate to the next frontier in Southeast Asian eating -- any day of the week.
Golden Villa Location: 1360 E. Anaheim St., No. 205 (second floor), Long Beach, (562) 591-7331. Price: Appetizers, $4.95 to $7.95; noodle dishes, $5 to $7; family-size soups, stir-fries and curries, $6 to $9; chef's specials and salads, $6 to $18. Best dishes: Salmon, catfish or raw shrimp salads, prahok katih, beef lok lak, trei ang (fish with vegetables), kar-ko soup. Details: Open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (closed Tuesday); Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Lot and street parking. Beer and wine. Visa and MasterCard accepted.