In 2018, a film industry veteran named Hak Lonh bought an old barber shop building in Lincoln Heights, just north of Chinatown. Tired of cranking out clips for his reel, he, along with his wife, Jane Oh, spent a year and half slowly restoring the French Quarter-style building, where they planned to open a destination Cambodian restaurant, one of the city’s few outside of Long Beach. “In LA, we have Long Beach and other places that have a really rich Cambodian community,” Lonh says. “I realized Cambodian food needs its time in the limelight. That’s how I got motivated to tell stories through food instead of from behind the camera.”
But a pandemic happened, one that has not yet released its grip on Los Angeles, with 214,000 cases and counting as of mid-August. “We had to reshape the business model into something accessible and easy so we could weather through this pandemic,” Lonh says. The natural wine bar they planned for the back of the space was scrapped, and last week, Gamboge, named for a saffron-colored pigment derived from the garcinia tree that is used to dye monks’ robes, opened as a casual, counter-service restaurant with contactless pickup and outdoor seating in a semi-covered courtyard.
While there will be plates of grilled beef short rib and pork shoulder, the restaurant’s current focus is num pang, the Cambodian counterpart to the better-known Vietnamese banh mi. “We figured the sandwich would be the best vehicle to introduce Cambodian flavors to the masses,” Lonh says. Num pang sandwiches have previously caught on in New York, where the local chain Num Pang Kitchen has numerous locations and a cookbook. Using a baguette with grilled meats, pate, and pickled vegetables, Gamboge’s sandwiches focus on freshly prepared proteins instead of cold cuts or leftover scraps, with options like pulled chicken, spicy pork shoulder, and lemongrass beef.
While Cambodian cuisine draws influences from neighboring China, Thailand, and Vietnam — with which it shares a history and culinary legacy of French colonization — many of the flavors find their basis in the Mekong River, which runs through the country and offers a bounty of ingredients. “Our food starts with a lemongrass paste called kroeung,” says Lonh. “It’s like a Cambodian mirepoix: lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, lime leaves, and garlic. It all gets muddled together and turned into a paste. Once you make that, you can use it in different marinades, and ... change it up by adding chiles and other things, but those five ingredients put together is what gives Cambodian food its unique taste. It’s aromatic, pungent, and deep.”
Lonh learned many of the recipes for Gamboge, like kroeung, at home from his mother, Bun Lonh. Much of Cambodia’s culinary history was lost, at least in its printed form, due to the Cambodian civil war. “Cambodian food is just a series of memories. It’s hard to find good Cambodian cookbooks,” Lonh says. “I’m trying to start a conversation and preserve what’s out there because there’s no official Cambodian cookbook.”
Prior to cooking, Lonh lived in New York City as he attempted to break into film and video production, with an eye toward becoming a director. After PA-ing and working as a camera assistant on independent features and commercials, Lonh relocated to Los Angeles in 2003 for an editing opportunity on a reality show for National Lampoon. “In the last five years, I realized I needed to pursue something that I felt meant something more than just another clip for my reel,” he says. “Hence the transition to starting a restaurant and becoming a chef, like my father, at middle age.”
Lonh’s family settled in Hershey, Pennsylvania, after being admitted into the United States in the early 1980s through a church group program for Cambodian refugees. His father, Kim Lonh, worked as a dishwasher at the Hotel Hershey, where he rose through the ranks of an apprenticeship program to become a classically trained chef. He then opened a series of restaurants, starting with a fried rice and chicken joint in North Philadelphia, followed by a Chinese restaurant called New Dragon. Real success came after acquiring a beer tavern called the Country Garden 6-Pack, where he added Chinese dishes like lo mein and sweet and sour pork to the standard bar menu of Italian subs. “The steel workers coming in for beer started ordering fried rice,” Lonh says. “Doctors would come in to check out the great selection of German beers.”
Lonh started helping at the tavern around the age of 12, stocking beer and running the register. He eventually began working in the kitchen, learning the ins and outs from his father, who instilled in him the same strict regimen he had learned at the Hotel Hershey. Lonh worked at Country Garden until he was 22, when he left for film school in San Francisco. Gamboge’s initial focus on sandwiches with natural wines and craft beer is something of an homage to his apprenticeship there. “When the opportunity for Gamboge came along, I knew it was something my dad and I could connect over,” Lonh says.
Still, Lonh’s parents were initially against him opening a restaurant, hoping, like many immigrant parents, that their child would pursue a white-collar career. “They didn’t realize there was a subtext to Gamboge, which is trying to tell the story of Cambodian food and immigrant culture. As I was feeling unfulfilled in my own career, I felt like it was coming full circle,” Lonh says. “I hated restaurants because of my parents, but I felt that there was something real about telling stories through food. This is sort of an experiment — an expensive experiment — to see if I could tell that story through the restaurant.”
Gamboge’s debut comes at a moment when the threat of gentrification looms over Lincoln Heights. The historically Latino neighborhood has become a target of real estate investors in recent years, making some wary of things like new businesses. Just across the street from Gamboge is one of the neighborhood’s long-standing landmarks, the predominantly Korean-American Young Nak Presbyterian church. The church was a primary draw of the location for Lonh, who had been reintroduced to Christianity through Oh and wanted to create connections with the church and the community. “After going to neighborhood council meetings and wanting to engage the church, we realized the community needs more options,” says Lonh.
“LA is going through a hard time with gentrification everywhere,” Lonh continues. But, he adds, “I’m not a gentrifier. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood like this. I’m familiar with the different stories that come from this sort of neighborhood.” Lonh hopes using Mexican ingredients like bolillo bread and carne asada-style flap meat for the num pang sandwiches, as well as keeping menu prices approachable, will attract locals for what might be their introduction to Cambodian food.
After visiting numerous restaurants in Long Beach, as well as Oakland’s celebrated modern Cambodian restaurant Nyum Bai, Lonh and Oh want Gamboge to become not only a place that keeps Cambodian traditions alive in Los Angeles, but also a place that melds their backgrounds (Two notable exceptions of Cambodian restaurants in LA are Chinatown’s New Kamara and Golden Lake Eatery). With the Korean church and its large congregation next door, Lonh wants to add more of a Korean influence to the menu in the future. But during the first phase of opening, Lonh hopes Gamboge will be his Cambodian story — one that he’ll tell through food instead of film.
Gamboge is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday to Thursday, and until 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Edited by Matthew Kang