It didn’t take long after Cambodians first started coming to Long Beach as refugees 40 years ago that the first Khmer restaurants appeared. After the brutal Khmer Rouge regime killed millions of their own people and decimated a vibrant culture in the name of communism, those who fled did their best to rebuild the only way they knew how — through food.
“One thing about us: we find our survival through food, so to be able to go out and get our own ingredients was big,” says Visoth Tarak Ouk, aka Chef T, the executive chef at Federal Bar in Long Beach, who moved to the city as a baby and remembers Cambodia Town’s early days. Today, Long Beach is home to the largest population of Cambodians anywhere in the United States.
In the early 1980s, neighborhood markets where uncommon spices and tropical fruits could be purchased for home cooking began to spring up. Then came restaurants like Phnom Penh Noodle (1985) and gilded nightclubs like New Paradise (now Legend Seafood) that doubled as community centers. They’re where immigrants who came from the Killing Fields could show off their new clothes and cars while eating opulent seafood dinners and dancing under sequin-studded karaoke singers.
In the span of a few decades, the once-Latino-dominant Anaheim Street became the heart of not just Long Beach’s Cambodian community, but America’s. Today, Long Beach as a whole has become a destination for homesick Cambodians seeking flavors of home, and for Westerners eager to dine on Khmer food for the first (or millionth) time.
If you ever need a reminder of the complex, otherworldly flavors that define Cambodian cooking, drive down to Long Beach and order a plate of amok trey from Cambodia Town Food and Music, the restaurant formerly known as Sophy’s, on Pacific Coast Highway. The dish — a spice-rubbed whitefish steamed in coconut milk curry until it achieves a souffle consistency — is a Cambodian specialty that offers a quick tour through the tangy, fishy, spicy, herbal wonderland that define the cuisine in this Southeast Asian country. It’s a flavor profile particular to the country’s signature spice blend kreung, a combination of lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, makrut lime leaves, and more.
Down the street, you can dig even deeper into the labor-intensive meals of Khmer cuisine at Phnom Penh Noodle Shack, a tiny breakfast and lunch spot specializing in what is essentially Cambodia’s pho: a pork and beef noodle soup called kuy teav. The bone-filled broth takes hours to make and when it’s done, it’s loaded with offal and dropped otherwise plain, so you can load it up with a buffet of tableside condiments like fish sauce, fermented red beans, and vinegar-soaked chiles.
Head down Anaheim Street and you’ll find Crystal Thai and Cambodian Cuisine, a hole-in-the-wall that (despite having Thai in the name) is arguably the most authentic Khmer restaurant of them all. There you’ll find bitter kreung-laden soups, whole deep-fried catfish with tamarind sauce ready for build-your-own lettuce wraps, and plenty of dishes infused with a typical Cambodian fermented fish paste known as prahok.
“What we bring to the table is the herbs and spices, the complexity of kreung and prahok. Those are the things that we can say are ours,” says Van Tan, the second-generation owner of Phnom Penh Noodle Shack. “We are big on lemongrass and fish and on really deep, rich, concentrated flavors. Sometimes you have to be adventurous to even come down here because it’s maybe too far from your palate.”
Today, there are about a dozen or so Cambodian restaurants in Long Beach, most of which also serve Chinese and Thai food in an attempt to accommodate Western clientele. (By comparison, L.A. has only two Khmer restaurants, both in Chinatown). But as the first generation gets older and the heyday of raucous nightclubs and undiscovered hole-in-the-walls catering exclusively to Cambodian immigrants wanes, Cambodia Town is entering a new era of its culinary history, one that almost requires it to cater to non-Khmer customers if it hopes to survive.
Some of the old-school restaurant owners are used to keeping to themselves and express little interest in finding new audiences (in perhaps a sign of the times, the banquet-hall restaurant Siem Riep closed last year). Then there’s the new crop of proud, young Khmericans who are exploring their own roots through food, and want nothing more than to share it with others. Chefs like Ouk and James Republic’s Maurice Yim are looking towards a future that combines Cambodian food with other global flavors.
And at Phnom Penh Noodle Shack, Van Tan, his brother Molino and their two sisters are continuing to run the operation just as it was envisioned by their three aunts over 30 years ago — albeit with a bilingual wait staff, a refreshed interior, and a youthful social media presence.
“Now is a great time to evolve,” Van says. “The elders who came here before can appreciate the changes, and it’s a great way to introduce this to people outside our community. Before, non-Khmer people would trickle in. They were maybe 10 percent of our business.”
And now? As an answer, Van motions out the restaurant’s front window where a young Latino couple takes photos with their toddler as they wait on the sidewalk for a table. Behind him, a table full of older white folks slurp up giant bowls of soup.
“Our voice is finally starting to be heard,” he says. “This is the whole process of growing.”