A 10-minute taxi ride from downtown Phnom Penh, out past the colonial mansions of the international district and over the squat Japanese Friendship Bridge on the national Highway 6, the biggest concentration of restaurants in Cambodia lies along the narrow strip of land running between the Mekong and the Tonle Sap rivers, vast seafood palaces lining either side of Highway 6 for a distance of several miles.
Some of these restaurants specialize in hot pots or local river fish, and others are little more than glorified noodle houses with decent waterside views. Many of them, though, are less restaurants than gigantic entertainment complexes, enormous compounds encrusted with waterfalls and carp ponds, dragons and pagodas, radiant neon, and at least one stageful of dancing women, glittery singers and Khmer-language comedians, joined together in endless revues. Menus are written in Chinese, Khmer, French and English, and the dishes served range over half a dozen cuisines. Roving bar girls wander around wearing tight bridesmaid’s dresses and sashes advertising Tiger Beer, Johnny Walker Black or California Red Wine — when you buy an expensive bottle of cognac, the Courvoisier woman will pour you shots until it is gone. Away from the stages are open dining terraces the size of soccer fields, lit with skeins of twinkling, colored bulbs, poised high over the vast, swampy expanse of the great Mekong. Huge freighters drift by on a hot spring night, fishing dories, and small, unlighted smugglers‘ boats, outlines barely discernible in the dark, the faces of their passengers briefly illuminated by the small, swelling glow when somebody strikes a match. When the music pauses for a minute on the restaurant’s main stage, the sound of laughter carries across the black water from a quarter-mile away.
In California, in the Little Phnom Penh neighborhood of Long Beach, Hak Heang is a little like a Highway 6 restaurant without the mosquitoes, all glowing neon, elaborate live-seafood tanks and yawning seas of tables, waitresses whipping around the room with endless streams of Tsingtao, boiled crabs, fried fish and sputtering skewers of Cambodian shish kebab. A Cambodian band takes the stage on weekend nights, five, seven, ten musicians sharing the crowded stage, percussionists and guitarists and synthesizer players, swaying young women who rush out in giggling groups of four, crooning Cambodian ballads and slick Cantopop tunes in tiny, hugely amplified voices clearly nurtured on karaoke.
Khmer cooking is like nothing else in Asia, sharing some ingredients with Vietnam and northern Thailand but more acerbic by half, clean, clear, almost without fat, bulked out with rowdy, untranslatable herbs of a dozen different bitternesses, fish sauce, blackened chips of fried garlic, and not much chile.
Hak Heang, like most other Cambodian restaurants both in Long Beach and Phnom Penh, all but hides its Khmer dishes on its menu, and it is up to you to find the duck‘s web salad, the dips and the curries from among its illustrated list of the usual Chinese banalities. There is a beef salad, punchy with lime, dusted with ground peanuts, flavored with baroque Asian varieties of mint and spiked with a bracing dose of chile, and a severely overcharred version of Cambodian beef satay. Better is the anchovy beef, a small, marinated steak grilled medium rare, sliced thin, and served with a relish of shaved raw eggplant, fermented fish, garlic and a little vinegar, a rare Cambodian dish that would make almost as much sense at a country restaurant in southern Piemonte as it would along the banks of the Tonle Sap.
Curry fish dip, a bowl of pork-spiked coconut curry, is meant to be scooped up with lettuce leaves, chunks of cucumber and bitterish slices of raw, golf-ball-size Cambodian eggplant. Hot and sour soup, sliced catfish in broth bubbling over a Sterno inferno, is delicately sweetened with pineapple. There is a big plate of sauteed frog in a kind of yellowish curry paste, hacked into splintery, rather inelegant pieces but nicely flavored with garlic and lemongrass. A whole tilapia plucked from the tanks is rubbed with salt, grilled over a hot fire and served on a bed of sadao, a Cambodian green that looks a little like unripe broccoli rabe but tastes bitter as cancer medicine, a mordancy that nonetheless gives an attractive, mossy edge to the crunchy skin of the fish.
Hak Heang may not be the single best restaurant on Long Beach’s Cambodian commercial strip. Other restaurants are more authentic, or at least offer a wider assortment of strictly Khmer dishes; other restaurants even have entertainment more elaborate. But it is at Hak Heang that you can smell the Mekong.
2041 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; (562) 434-0296. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Full bar. Guarded lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $18–$28. Recommended dishes: curry fish dip; anchovy beef; grilled fish with sadao. Cash only.