I’m in Long Beach for the week. The spot I’m stuck in is a concrete jungle of hotels, convention spots, chain restaurants, and bad local restaurants that are more focused on selling alcohol than making good food. I did some basic research to see what we might find on our one off night in terms of decent local fare. I read somewhere that there was a significant local Cambodian community that had their own little Cambodia neighborhood with lots of restaurants. FWIW Yelp felt that Siem Reap Asian Cuisine was the best of the bunch so off we went.
If you’re opening a restaurant featuring cuisine from Cambodia, the Philippines, Laos, or even Vietnam, it’s semi-common practice to claim to also offer Chinese or Thai food. Ethnic entrepreneurs worry that the local American population won’t come unless there’s something they recognize. Fair or not, I usually won’t go to Vietnamese restaurants that offer Chinese food. I figure, they’re kind of all over the place and their food will be too.
I am no expert on Cambodian food, despite (or maybe because of) spending a week there a couple of years ago. The country was beautiful. And finding a driver that would take me to non-tourist food establishments was difficult. In some of the poorest neighborhoods the main feature of each restaurant appeared to be the TV. Diners would sit at long tables, all on one side facing the TV so they could watch while they ate. The restaurants I finally got to eat at all shared beef as a central ingredient. It’s typically paired with some cool crunchy vegetables, and some citrus accent. This is a vast over-simplification but it’s an oft-present signature.
Siem Reap Asian Cuisine is a fine example of Cambodian cuisine. I’m a big fan of meat on sticks, and Cambodians don’t disappoint. One of my favorite Cambodian dishes, Beef Lok Lac, was probably the best of the meal from my perspective. The small pieces of beef were coated in a caramel-like glaze, all savory with hints of molasses. Pairing them with cabbage and cucumber as well as the sauce of lime juice and an enormous amount of pepper was absolutely delicious. Some of the other steak items didn’t have as much flavor on their own but my sense is that you’re expected to coat them in the various sauces you’re offered. Another highlight was a small bowl of curried ground pork meatballs. For folks used to eating some of the bigger players on the American Asian cuisine scene (Chinese, Japanese Thai) having these interesting new flavors are a nice change of pace.
Needless to say, we had a lovely meal. And the family that runs Siem Reap Asian Cuisine were kind and generous hosts. They called us a cab and it took quite awhile. We were afraid we were keeping them late but they made it clear that they wanted us to wait inside until the cab came. The said it was too dangerous to wait outside. We thought they were kidding. I’m pretty sure now they weren’t. In my quest for good Cambodian food it appears I’d led our little party into a bad part of town. Oops. I suppose that’s the cost of trying to get a decent meal in Long Beach.