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December 28, 2008

Phnom Penh

Kuy Teav Chha Kreoung Tek Trey Phem Dominic Armato

It's a little absurd, really, that I know absolutely nothing about Khmer cuisine. I adore the foods of Thailand and Vietnam, and then there's Cambodia, sandwiched in between them with a little strip of ocean to the south and a little strip of Laos to the north. I've heard of Cambodian restaurants here and there, but they never seemed to attract much attention. Why Cambodian hasn't made the kind of inroads here as its wildly popular neighbors, I can't say. Perhaps the recent history of poverty, famine, genocidal dictators and massive political upheaval has something to do with it. Cambodia, understandably, has been more concerned with survival and stability than culinary ambassadorship over the past few decades. The exception, however, has been Cleveland's Phnom Penh, a restaurant that is mentioned frequently and lovingly in food nerd circles. It's been at the top of my Cleveland short list for a couple of years, I finally got there last week, and I wish I'd done so sooner.

Salad Phnom PenhDominic Armato
Though the newer location near West Side Market is the one most frequently mentioned, I opted for the original spot off Jefferson Park. Our server told us they've been around for ten years, but I would have guessed 20 or 30. I'll call the room humble (some may consider "dingy" more accurate) and the winter chill, though blunted, didn't stop at the front door. But the temperature of the restaurant was contrasted by the warmth of its staff, friendly, enthusiastic and all smiles. Even if we had been familiar with the cuisine, we probably still would have solicited advice. The menu is enormous, with nearly a hundred items covering Cambodian, Vietnamese and a smattering of Thai, even before you count the combinatons and permutations of seasonings and proteins. As it was, we mostly put ourselves in the staff's capable hands, making a couple of starter selections and deferring on the rest, with the instruction to stick to Cambodian classics.

NatingDominic Armato
Right out of the gate, we knew we were in capable hands. Requesting a salad recommendation, our server steered us towards the house's special Salad Phnom Penh. It arrived, very finely shredded cabbage with some chicken, carrots, bean sprouts, slivered green bell peppers, fresh basil, ground peanut topping and a garlic dressing, and made a big impression. The flavor profile won't be unfamiliar to fans of Thai and Vietnamese. It's that same combination of salty, sweet and tart citrus with seemingly endless variations, this one being an unusually light and delicate take (lemon instead of lime, perhaps?). Delicate, actually, was the operative word here. The vegetables were shredded with the utmost precision, creating an exceptionally light and crisp texture, but more importantly, it let us know right away that whoever was manning the kitchen did so with a capable hand. The dressing was perfectly balanced -- entirely worthy of house special status.

Samlaw Machou Phnom PenhDominic Armato
We moved on to our sole request of the evening, Nating. Crispy puffed rice cakes -- not unlike those that might be dropped into a Chinese sizzling rice soup -- arrived alongside a small bowl of a concoction meant to be spooned over them. The bowl contained tender ground pork in what I'd describe as a very mild tomato-based curry. Though it employed coconut milk, it did so in a very light fashion, lacking the creaminess I associate with many Thai coconut curries. The specific seasonings, I couldn't begin to deciper, mostly because I was too busy enjoying it. The subtle, round flavor of the sauce, the tenderness of the pork, the contrasting crispness of the rice -- this was in the running for favorite of the evening, though we're still unsure whether it was meant to be eaten with fingers or utensils.

BayonDominic Armato
Cold weather means soup, and that gave us the opportunity to sample another Cambodian classic. Listed under the somewhat painfully titled "Fantasy Stew" section of the menu were two iterations of the Vietnamese-influenced samlaw machou, a sour Cambodian soup. Our server steered us towards the second version, prepared with pineapple, sliced celery, basil, shrimp and chicken. Though I can't speak for this specific preparation, pickled lime is apparently common for the dish. But the primary flavor in this bowl of tartness was tamarind. And while the paste of the pod is well-known, the soup was also seasoned with an herb that our server identified as tamarind leaves. In contrast to the previous two dishes, there was nothing subtle going on here. It was lip-puckering, warm and delicious, if not quite as keenly balanced as some similar Thai soups I've had.

Stirred Beef and Shrimp ChiliDominic Armato
The first of our entrees was the low point of the evening, though I suspect that was as much our fault as it was the kitchen's. In deference to a highly chile-sensitive member of our group, we ordered the bayon mild, and it was the wrong dish to do non-spicy. A Cambodian curry made with large chunks of zucchini and summer squash, it came across like a Thai pad prik king minus the prik -- sort of missing the point. In response, we asked the server to bring on the spicy, and she responded with house special stirred beef and jumbo shrimp chili with special fried rice. I'm not sure what makes the fried rice special. It was boilerplate carrot, peas and eggs. The beef and shrimp chili, however, was interesting. It was intense, sweet and saucy, striking me more like an Americanized Chinese dish. Chinese migrants have had a significant influence on Cambodian cuisine, and I wonder if this dish reflects those influences. But the spicy sweet also had a nice funky almost seafoody undertone. I understand that Cambodian frequently utilizes fermented fish paste. Perhaps that card was in play.

Kuy Teav Chha Kreoung Tek Trey PhemDominic Armato
The star entree of the evening was the impressively titled kuy teav chha kreoung tek trey phem. From what little I can find online (and those conversant in Khmer, by all means, jump in) the chha refers to stir-fry, kreoung is a Cambodian seasoning paste akin to curry, kuy teav is a beef or pork noodle soup similar to pho, and the rest... no idea. But what I find curious is that Phnom Penh's kuy teav doesn't even remotely resemble any descriptions or photos of the dish I see elsewhere online. Noodles aside, this was in no way even remotely pho-like. It reminded me more of a Vietnamese bun dish, with topped fresh noodles and an accompanying fish sauce similar to nuoc cham. But then it took kind of a right turn. The noodles were topped with fried spring rolls, stir-fried onions, slivered basil and ground peanuts, all in a sauce of kreoung and coconut, the former deeply flavored and heavy on turmeric. The creamy coconut, turmeric-heavy curry and tart and salty fish sauce seem like an odd combination on paper, but it was a wonderful dish, vibrant and rounded at the same time. With elements reminiscent of Thai, Vietnamese and Indian all thrown together, it was precisely what I found so compelling about a wonderful introduction to Cambodian. The foods are clearly southeast Asian, and they employ familiar ingredients in familiar ways that are at times reminiscent of (or directly influenced by) the other cuisines of the region, but the dishes were nonetheless novel to me. I'm obviously in no position, after one meal, to be making any authoritative generalizations about Cambodian cuisine, but the dishes we tasted had a unique character that I'm anxious to learn more about. Sadly, this jaunt to Cleveland only afforded us one opportunity, but Phnom Penh is at the top of my list for our next visit.

Phnom Penh
13124 Lorain Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44111
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 9:30 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun3:00 PM - 9:00 PM


Thanks for the review Dom. I am going to send a link to this review to a friend in Cleveland.

Happy New Year!

Excellent post, Happy New Year!
I've been kind of manic about fries this year and the fries next to the kobe/foie slider look tasty. Were they notable to you?
I remember reading that when Cambodians emigrated to the U.S. they settled in one particular location. Off the top of my head I think it was Minnesota. So there might be more of an abundance of Cambodian restaurants there.

I absolutely LOVE Phnom Penh's Kuy Teav Chha Khmer. I live in Columbus but grew up in Cleveland so everytime I visit friends and family I also visit Phnom Penh for some stirred pan noodles. It is such a delicious dish. Not to mention their shrimp Pad Thai is uniquely wonderful. I couldn't compare their food to anything here in Columbus, and this restaurant is a cultural gem.

As a longtime fan of Cambodian food (former Cambodian boyfriend who not only introduced me to the cuisine, but knew how to cook), I am embarrassed to say that I have spent time in the Cleveland area for several years & have yet to visit Phnom Penh. As soon as I can get rid of holiday leftovers, I will find my way there. Thanks VERY much for your terrific commentary.

If you happen to be in the Boston area, I'd recommend the Elephant Walk. I remember when they opened > 15 years ago with the novel concept of a dual French/Cambodian cuisine based menu. It was the first Cambodian restaurant I visited in the U.S. & I recall making notes on their recipe for Loc Lac (very simple beef with garlic) from their NY Times review posted on the wall near my table.

And yes, Bill, like other immigrant groups (and particularly refugee groups), Cambodians tend to be found in clusters in the U.S. Minnesota has a large number of refugees, including Hmong; the area north of Boston (Lowell comes to mind) has a significant Cambodian population; and there seems to be a natural affinity toward the west coast where there is a larger Asian population. And yes, I think that's where you'll find restaurants -- that was why I was excited to find a Cambodian restaurant in MA after living in NYC where none existed at the time. It's also why I learned to cook the food myself! But of course, my repertoire is limited & I enjoy experiencing great food from pros, so I will get to Phnom Penh -- in the next week or two -- I promise. Thanks again for the nudge.

I ADORE 54B - Kuy Teav Chha Khmer (with chicken). We lived in Cleveland and found Phnom Penh by accident about 12 years ago (yes, the one by Jefferson Park :) ). We moved to Seattle 4 years ago and haven't found anything even close to this dish. I was addicted to this dish and have been looking for a recipe for it (I dream about it) forever and came across your blog. Thank you for the wonderful memory. Now...can you get the recipe?!

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