Los Angeles has Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Little Osaka, Thai Town and Chinatown. However, Cambodian cuisine is largely off the radar for most Angelenos, despite the fact that Long Beach is home to more than 20,000 people of Cambodian descent — and a designated Cambodia Town.
In the 1970s, Cambodian refugees, who arrived at Camp Pendleton, began settling in Long Beach and quickly built a community base. By contrast, L.A.'s Cambodian population is relatively small. Chinatown has about 600 Cambodian residents, which was enough to convince Johnny Yee, who also owns a nearby doughnut shop, to open a Cambodian restaurant last October.
As the first Cambodian restaurant in the city of L.A., Yee's Golden Lake Eatery is an entryway into an underappreciated Southeast Asian cuisine. At first glance, Golden Lake Eatery doesn't seem different from the handful of Vietnamese restaurants that have occupied the Chinatown location for the past 20 years. The layout is the same as it has always been, with the exception of a few more tables and chairs, and a counter where steam tables used to be. The $2.50 rice paper and rice noodle snacks, which are ubiquitous to casual Vietnamese eateries, crowd the register stand. There's a paper menu with about a half dozen bánh mì sandwiches, which in Cambodia are called nam pang.
The sandwiches here are indiscernible from their Vietnamese counterparts served at the best places in the San Gabriel Valley. Priced at $3, they are cheap too. But the real specialties of the house are inside an albumlike menu with a thick cover and photos of almost all the dishes.
The menu is ambitiously large and varied for such a tiny kitchen. The appetizers, soups, noodles and stir-fried dishes appear to be the same mash-up of languages spoken by the staff: Cambodian, Vietnamese and a little Chinese. However, the heart and soul of the food is Khmer.
The Khmer people have lived in Southeast Asia for thousands of years, before modern national borders were created, and their cuisine has influenced and been influenced by neighboring countries including Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Chinese culinary influence is found throughout the region, as are bread and sandwiches from French Indochina. The menu isn't a melange of Southeast Asian cuisines, per se. It's representative of Cambodian cuisine and the Khmer diaspora.
Almost all the dishes are priced between $2.50 and $7. Start with some taro cakes stuffed with little cubes of taro and minced pork, encased in a rice-flour dough; don't forget to ask for them fried. The beef knuckle soup, served with soup noodles or a side of dry noodles seasoned with shallots and thin slices of beef, has the clarity of a great French stock, with added depth from mushroom soy sauce and charred onions. It's like drinking the essence of meat and bones.
Phnom Penh noodles, named after Cambodia's capital, could perhaps be considered a signature item. It's a dry noodle dish gilded with layers of shrimp, sliced pork, fried shallots, garlic and herbs, served with a small bowl of broth and a handful of bean sprouts. The lok lak beef (shaking beef) is served with sticky rice and a classic Khmer dipping sauce made with lime juice, fish sauce and so much ground black pepper that it thickens the sauce. Surprisingly, it's more elegant and refreshing than it is bracing; a perfect foil for the lightly caramelized beef and side salad of greens and cucumbers.
Black pepper shrimp should be ordered whole with the skin and heads on. The aroma of wok-seared shellfish should hit your nose first, followed by smokey spices and hot green chilis. Suck out the brains from the shrimp heads and lick your fingers between bites of shrimp meat.
They do vegetables well, too. The baby gai lan is perfectly cooked, tender with a little snap and doused with a garlicky oyster sauce. Ten people could easily feast here for about $10 per person.
Throughout the meal, you will sense Golden Lake Eatery's spirit of generosity with seasonings and with portion sizes. If you're wondering how they keep their prices so low, it's worth pointing out that commercial rents can still be dirt cheap in Chinatown, despite the recent arrival of such notable chefs as Roy Choi and Andy Ricker.
Khmer food has always been one of L.A.'s most underrepresented Asian cuisines, but with places like Golden Lake now introducing some of the culture's most popular dishes to the city, you no longer have to drive to Long Beach to get a taste of Cambodia.
Golden Lake Eatery, 424 W. College St., Chinatown; (213) 509-4035
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