QUESTION: You have, more than once actually, complained about the ubiquity
of music in Southeast Asian restaurants, as if the mere presence of a karaoke
machine or a cover band was enough to put you off your feed. But what about
those of us who like a little music with our spicy Asian food?
—Mike, Echo Park
ANSWER: The best music I have ever heard in a restaurant was at the
long-gone Banteay Srey in Long Beach, a Khmer restaurant that regularly featured
a young singer whose suppleness of line and purity of tone were just devastating.
I know next to nothing about Khmer pop music — except, of course, for Long Beach’s
own Prach Ly, a bilingual gangsta rapper who sounds a little like a Cambodian
Ice-T — but that woman was just amazing.
New Paradise is hardly unknown to habitués of Long Beach’s Little Phnom Penh
neighborhood. It was the first major restaurant in the area, and its menu of
Chinese standards, enlivened with the occasional Khmer-style curried fish dip
with raw vegetables or superbitter sadao salad, is still probably the
most imitated in town. If you admire the sticky beef satays, fried frog with
lemongrass, or hot-and-sour fish soup at places like Battambang or Hak Heang,
you’ll find a lot to like about the cooking at New Paradise, especially if you
lubricate it with Heineken on ice, which for some reason seems to be the proper
thing to drink with Cambodian food.
And the band isn’t bad — Khmer-language covers of Cantopop ballads and KRLA
oldies performed with a certain verve by a band that sounds a bit like the Cambodian
B-52s, often accompanied by a particularly graceful form of line dancing on
the crowded dance floor, like a sock hop from a different dimension. Really,
I’m surprised Michael Mann hasn’t found a way to work New Paradise into a movie
yet. 1350 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 218-0066.