A Visit to Cambodia Without Leaving the U.S.

"In Cambodia, the Chinese and the French have always run most of the restaurants. We have never been the merchants in society," said our Cambodian waiter, explaining the scarcity of Cambodian restaurants here in Los Angeles--or in fact anywhere. "And," he added, "Cambodian food is usually eaten only at home."

For over a decade, visits to Cambodia have been forbidden. Today, tourists are finally being permitted to view the fabulous remnants of its ancient civilization--Angkor Thom, the city and the Angkor Wat temple. But they may not stay in the country overnight and the five hours allotted for sight-seeing leave little time to eat. Even if more time were allowed, the lack of native restaurants would make it difficult to sample the local cuisine. Actually, if you want to eat in a Cambodian restaurant, you have as good a chance to do so in Long Beach or San Francisco as anywhere else in the world.

If you ate Cambodian food not knowing its origin, you would recognize the familiar flavors of Thai and Vietnamese dishes. For centuries, Cambodia's borders have been as fluid as Mekong Delta silt. Their kitchens borrowed copiously from one another--and from India and China. Still, each cuisine manages to have its own character, dictated by the supplies at hand. Cambodia's mainstays are the plentiful freshwater fish from the Mekong River and the country's great central lake, as well as the wild leafy herbs that grow along river banks. These--backed up with lemon grass, varieties of mints and basils, tamarind and native limes--create a unique flavor.

San Francisco has many Cambodian restaurants. Thanks to the volunteers assisting local Cambodian refugees--and healthy San Franciscan appetites--they are thriving.

But a knowledgeable Asian-food expert complains that most of the foods are "geared to the American palate," perhaps as Chinese food was in the old chop suey days. While it is true that most Cambodians do not eat out, and the menus therefore tend to emphasize the dishes that American diners most enjoy, I have found the food to be quite authentic.

At San Francisco's Phnom Penh restaurant, there was no water buffalo--a treat in Cambodia. But the pounded fish paste on heart of banana flower was exotic enough. And, I should add, absolutely delicious--something I might serve as an appetizer to foodie friends to get the conversation rolling.

I can say with a fair amount of certainty that business people lunching at the 3-year-old establishment need not worry about having their suits wrinkled (from sitting on authentic straw mats around bowls of food, as is the custom in Cambodia).

Instead, the storefront restaurant offers tables thoughtfully appointed Western style, with white linens and fresh flowers in a tranquil room. These discreet amenities and the well-organized staff are not an accident. Owner Joanna Ty's husband, Keav Ty, managed a restaurant in Cambodia that served primarily as a spot for huge banquets and wedding feasts.

Anyone interested in getting the true feeling of Cambodian dining should consider Phnom Penh's soups. Soup served with rice is frequently the heart of a Cambodian meal and sometimes the only thing served. Phnom Penh offers soups from three of the cuisine's four major soup categories: samlaw , samlaw machhou and sgnor. The most popular, samlaw machhou kroeung sach ko , is thin slices of beef simmered in a heady, aromatic lemon grass-based broth. And the Indian-influenced samlaw machhou kroeung Krahorm is an extraordinary combination of chicken in a tamarind-spiked, coconut milk curry broth with chunks of pineapple.

The menu has no salad section, though the salads offered under "appetizers" are some of the more adventurous items in the category. Our shredded green papaya with a julienne of pork and whole shrimps had a slightly tart, lemony dressing and mint leaves. It rivals many a "new cuisine" dish I've had on pricier menus. I've already decided to try the "beef salad a la Cambogienne" next time. Lott --Cambodian-style egg roll--while delicious, was a fairly usual Southeast Asian-style roll, and our chicken-coconut milk curry with bamboo shoots was much like any good Thai curry. I now wish I'd ordered the more unusual-sounding eggplant stuffed with chopped pork and shrimps in a light garlic sauce or sauteed winter melon in garlic sauce or perhaps the spicy fried fish patties served with pickles.

Phnom Penh, 631 Larkin St., San Francisco, (415) 775-5979. Open Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m. Beer and wine only. Street parking. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $24-$30.

La Lune is the L.A.-area's sole restaurant serving true Cambodian food. It is off the beaten path, several blocks away from the heart of a thriving Southeast Asian business district in Long Beach. The area is so thick with groceries, jewelry stores, tailors, printers and unknown shops with Cambodian signs, you almost feel like you've left the country. True to history, the area's many restaurants, with signs and menus written in Cambodian script, are Chinese.

Entering La Lune is a little like stepping into a fairy tale. Starched linens dress the tables and candlelight glows against the walls. The food is presented in covered glass dishes and served on doily-lined bone china plates. But a huge, eerily lit photomural of the ornate Angkor Wat looms on one wall, erasing any impression that this might be a Western-style restaurant.

One interesting touch: La Lune's computer-generated English and Khmer menu is the first example I've seen of Cambodian writing in dot matrix print.

Sometimes I'm overly determined to try really authentic foods. The waitress was hesitant as she took my order for the only two dishes not translated into English. One, pronounced nguam , is a kind of salad whose main ingredient is sadao , the tiny flowers of a tree. Its extreme bitterness may be a delicacy for Cambodians, but to unaccustomed palates the strong flavor overpowered every other element in the dish. The other untranslated dish (No. 14) was a complex soup including green banana, round baby Asian eggplant, pumpkin, quail, toasted rice powder and keffir lime leaves--to hit just a few of the highlights.

It should be mentioned that these were not the selections polished off by my guests. Instead, they favored the crispy quail--three dainty birds cut into parts and deep-fried accompanied by a black pepper-laced fresh lemon juice dipping sauce. Beside the quail, a mound of demi-pickled vegetables were a refreshing touch that came with many other dishes. I wondered while chewing on the little drumsticks if three quails could be had anywhere else for $6.50.

I loved the "sour fish soup," a rich viscous fish broth, made tart and fruity by tamarind and wedges of fresh pineapple. Floating on the soup were fresh mint and scallion. These individual bursts of flavor perfumed the broth, which was filled with meaty fish chunks and tomato wedges.

Another favorite at our table was "stuffed drumstick with special herb," a chicken leg rolled around a complex, subtly spiced mixture of clear noodles and peanuts. The boneless leg is sliced into ovals like a little pate. Though an appetizer, it seemed enough for a main dish. And it was devoured before I got a second bite. Avoid the appetizer of dry spicy fish steamed in curry; it was quite flavorless.

A dish that really captured the essence of Cambodian cooking, and its link to the native ingredients, was our green papaya salad with tomatoes and long beans. The cook actually makes the dressing in a stone mortar (indispensable in Cambodian cooking) using a pestle to pound a host of items including whole baby crabs, unpeeled limes, roasted peanuts and plenty of fresh herbs into a sauce. It is served immediately) before the individual flavors meld to a single note.

Every dish listed under "beef" on La Lune's menu is termed sate . These, we found out, are stir-fry dishes and should not be confused with the appetizer sate of familiar marinated meat chunks on a stick. The appetizer sates are full of the flavor of lemon grass and a smoky grill.

Just lately I've heard about another family in Long Beach that is actively seeking a restaurant site and backers. In this society, it seems to our gustatory advantage, some Cambodians are becoming merchants after all.

La Lune, 2055 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, (213) 591-1180. Open daily, 4:30 p.m. to midnight. No alcoholic beverages. Street parking. No credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$15.

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