Down the street from the big Serbian temple, not far from Vietnamese noodle shops, a Taiwanese restaurant where the waitresses dress like Navajos, and the most refined Mexican restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, the Cambodian-Chinese restaurant Battambang juts from the boulevard like a fairy-tale apparition, a soaring Khmer castle in filigreed pink and green that appears to be as out of place on this strip of dusty mini-malls as the Capitol Records building might be in the muddy streets of Phnom Penh. On the nights when the karaoke machine is in full operation, which is to say all of them, you can hear Battambang at least a block or two before the building rears into sight.
In its original incarnation, the restaurant, named for Cambodia’s second-largest city, was a pioneer of Khmer-Chinese cooking in Long Beach’s Cambodian shopping district, a great dive to stop by for grilled beef sticks or blazing cauldrons of sour banana-blossom soup. After a few years it moved to Chinatown, where it served as the main Cambodian restaurant downtown, probably as well known for its versions of classic Chiu Chow noodle dishes as for more traditional Khmer dishes like duck-foot salad, fish-chile dip and amok.
Now that it is in the San Gabriel Valley, in a neighborhood notorious for its excellent dim sum palaces and Vietnamese broken-rice parlors, Battambang is a massive place, decorated with flowery wedding arches and kitschy statues, chandeliers and Day-Glo murals of Angkor Wat that look like something airbrushed onto the side of a van. The restaurant is popular for its clear-noodle soups in the morning, its bargain Chinese lunches at noon and its party-hearty philosophy at night — a philosophy best exemplified by handwritten signs stating that every beer after the 10th will be discounted by 50 cents.
The menu arrives in the form of a laminated photo album, each dish photographed in lurid color and described in Chinese, Khmer, English and Vietnamese. (What looks like the transliterated name for the menu items is actually the Vietnamese translation.)
Khmer cooking is among the most exotic on the planet, sharing some ingredients with nearby Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, but with a flavor unmistakably its own: clear, clean and bitter, inflected with coconut milk, the fermented fish sauce called prahok and any number of minty herbs. The cooking techniques lean toward the Chinese; the spicing toward southern India. What’s on your plate will consist mostly of raw vegetables and freshwater fish — Cambodia is home to Southeast Asia’s most elaborate wetland ecosystem, including a major river that reverses course twice a year — but the odd cow or pig part is not infrequent, and in restaurants, including this one, you often see frog (fried with spices) and deer (served as slightly dry barbecue, sliced into noodle soup or sautéed).
Amok (“steamed curry fish filet” on the menu) is probably the most famous dish of Khmer cuisine, a filet steamed with coconut milk and aromatics until it almost collapses under its own weight, garnished with a plop of coconut cream and sliced fresh chiles. A French chef might quit in shame if he accidentally overcooked fish the way that Cambodians do on purpose, but amok at Battambang (related to the Thai har mok) is pretty wonderful, with a soft texture somewhere between rare halibut and a Burgundian mousseline, preserving both the earthiness of the freshwater fish and the natural succulence of its flesh.
“Curry fish,” made from ground fish and pork simmered together with chiles, prahok and coconut milk, is close to the northern Thai dish nam prik oong, sweet and gently spicy, served with a platter of sliced raw long beans, cabbage and tiny eggplants that you use to scoop up the curry fish as if you were eating chips and dip. You will find a wonderful salad made with the herb sadao, which looks a little like Italian rapini, dressed with citrus, sugar and chiles, and tossed with leathery bits of fried fish. The salad is delicious, but you kind of have to lean into its powerful medicinal bitterness — sadao is an acquired taste. “Fresh vegetable beef,” a gentle green salad with grilled cow and a similar dressing, may be a little easier on the palate.
As at most Cambodian-Chinese restaurants in town, the smattering of Khmer dishes is not specifically identified on the menu, and if you manage to order a selection of them, the waitress will probably raise her eyebrow and ask you if you like Cambodian food: loc lac, sautéed cubes of saucy marinated beef served with a watercress salad; sweet grilled “beef stick” marinated in a deep-red paste that tastes like but isn’t Hawaiian Punch concentrate; spicy-sour soup with slices of catfish and battleship-gray slivers of banana blossom that taste like bottled artichoke hearts. Tell her you’ve come for the karaoke.
Battambang, 1806 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel, (626) 307-3938. Open daily, 10 a.m.–10:30 p.m. Beer, wine. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, $20–$30. Recommended dishes: beef loc lac?; amok?; curry fish; hot and sour soup; sadao salad with fish.
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