Here’s a fairly typical Los Angeles dining experience: A fast-food Chinese restaurant run by Cambodian immigrants serves some of the most legitimate Central-American cooking in the city. Beijing Express is run by Tony Khouv and Emily Lim, two Cambodians that serve the Central-American and Oaxacan communities of Westlake with some borrowed ingredients and techniques.
“I learned some recipes from the people, customers and from watching Youtube videos,” said Khouv. “Whatever was missing I added the flavor — you want to try the shrimp and fish soup? It’s one of our most popular items, also caldo de pollo and caldo de res.”
75% of the customers at Beijing Express are Central-American (mostly Guatemalans) that come from the surrounding neighborhood to happily devour Khouv’s take on the aforementioned hits, plus dishes like platanos con crema, albondigas, and chilaquiles with eggs. There’s some tasty orange chicken, too — another favorite among Latinos. Khouv has been around the genre a while, originally opening Panda Bowl Express in 2011 and a place called Panda Chef in Huntington Park. Both serve Chinese-American food to Latinos, capitalizing on the the wildly popular Panda Express among Spanish-speaking enclaves in LA.
Khouv arrived in Houston back in 1981 as part of the refugee relief program during the third wave of Cambodian immigration to the U.S. in the post-Khmer Rouge era. After he’d worked for years in the wholesale delivery of produce and meat, Khouv saved enough money to get into the restaurant business, along with his partner Emily Lim. At first glance, Beijing Express is a real head scratcher, listing Chinese Fast Food, Mexican, and Guatemalan Food on its banner. But it’s perfectly suited to the demographics of MacArthur Park.
Westlake is a predominately Central-American population of shoppers, residents, and street vendors, along with Oaxacans and other Mexicans, that patronize restaurants and retail shops tucked into swap meet malls owned by Spanish-speaking Chinese. A typical MacArthur Park eatery should consider putting together a menu of orange chicken, boba, beef teriyaki, tacos, and carne guisada before ever signing a lease, as Khouv and Lim did.
All it takes is a sample sip of the house special, the fish and shrimp soup, to know it’s worth picking up a full-sized order. The soup is full of flavorful heat and a rich oceanic stock flush with shrimp and fish, rice, tortillas, chopped onions, and cilantro, plus cut limes on the side for finishing the dish. In the surrounding tables young Guatemalan men quietly eat caldos paired with Arizona Ice Teas and Gatorade.
Another group of Latinos eagerly grab orange school trays of chilaquiles, huevos a la mexicana, and chorizo with eggs, and no one utters a word about cultural appropriation because they’re too busy eating, telling jokes, and tempting diabetic comas by guzzling back-to-back 11.5 oz cans of Arizona Watermelon, Kiwi Strawberry, and Mucho Mango.
Khouv’s customers are almost exclusively Central-American and Mexican, but he isn’t waving a banner as the standard bearer of Guatemalan cuisine; he’s just providing a service to the MacArthur Park community in Westlake. No one will ever ask Tony Khouv to compete on Top Chef Masters or offer him a TV show on authentic Guatemalan cuisine. Cambodians aren’t even part of the national discussion taking place on Asian cuisine in America, despite a strong presence in the Long Beach area.
Beijing Express’s Tony Khouv and Emily Lim, both Cambodian immigrants, aren’t likely to become famous or known for preparing Guatemalan cuisine. What Tony Khouv does is make a delicious plate of food, which he does quite well.
Beijing Express, 2000 West 6th St, Westlake, (213) 484-8137