Soaring out of a North Long Beach storefront nestled between a mariscos joint and a salon are the scents and sounds that remind many in the Cambodian community of home: lemongrass, the clang of metal utensils hitting woks, fish sauce, the pops and crackles of meat hitting frying oil, and whiffs of five-spice.
And while many of these scents and sounds touch on the Cambodian classics served at Shlap Muan — steaming bowls of kuy teav (pork noodle soup), heaps of lok lak (pepper beef), garlic noodles upon garlic noodles, dishes that have inextricably tied Cambodian culture to Long Beach — what they are all particularly geared toward is the heart of the restaurant: the humble-but-mighty fried chicken wing. (“Shlap muan” is Khmer for “chicken wings.”) At their compact restaurant with a handful of tables, husband-and-wife owners Hawk and Sophia Tea are serving playful, if not outright witty, takes on wing sauces and dry seasonings, all with a Cambodian-centric influence.
The result? Using the earthy and citrusy lemongrass notes of the Cambodian kroeung paste as a star for a take on lemon-pepper and calling it “Cambodian dirt.” Deconstructing the flavors of Peking duck — a staple at Cambodian celebrations, given China’s heavy influence on the Southeast Asian country’s food — into a dry seasoning that uses Sichuan peppercorns and five-spice cheekily dubbed “pekang.” Or playing with classic salt-and-pepper dishes sprinkled throughout Asian American restaurants by creating a savory umami bomb called “jalapeno MSG,” a jab at the unscientific, racially biased American conception that blames Asian foods’ inclusion of MSG for myriad health concerns.
At Shlap Muan, the Teas are hoping not only to alter people’s conception of what constitutes Cambodian food, but to encourage fellow Cambodians and Cambodian Americans to own, harness, and alchemize their food experiences. It’s also a love letter to Hawk’s parents, Chhay and Leeann Tea, who previously ran a restaurant in the space. “People ask me where my flavors come from, and it’s from them,” Hawk says. “My family is from Cambodia, but also has a deep Chinese heritage attached. After being refugees, we became American, so my ideas of food are swirled around these three cultures simultaneously.”
Shlap Muan’s space is inherently attached to Hawk’s parents’ difficult transition into American life. They arrived on the city’s shores in 1991 after staying in a refugee camp in order to escape the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, like many other Cambodian families in Long Beach. (In the case of Chhay and Leeann, it was the Nong Samet refugee camp at the Vietnam-Cambodia border.)
And also like many Cambodian families attempting to assimilate in Southern California, the elder Teas turned to food as a source of income. Many chose doughnuts, as exemplified by Los Angeles’s Donut King Ted Ngoy, while others chose restaurants. While Cambodian food, particularly in Long Beach and recently outside and within Los Angeles, has become more common, Cambodian immigrant families — like the Thai, Vietnamese, and other Asian immigrants before them — had to focus on a food Americans were already familiar with.
That typically meant some form of Chinese food, already heavily influential in Cambodian cuisine, which is exactly what Chhay and Leeann served. Little did Hawk know that, like his parents’ up-and-down path to finding stability, he himself would have an adventure that would take him away only to bring him back home. “I was always in the kitchen because it was the family workspace,” Hawk said. “Once I was grown, I wanted nothing to do with the restaurant. Me and my wife were just itching — so we decided to go to San Francisco.”
A Bay Area corporate job for Hawk proved soul-crushing, while homesickness increased with each return trip home in order to stock up on Tupperware filled with his mother’s kreoung and prahok (fermented fish paste). All of this resulted in a newfound appreciation for his parents’ cooking and the need for another new beginning, so, in 2018, Hawk and Sophie opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant on the third floor of San Francisco’s Crocker Galleria.
Initially called Braised + Bread before switching to Shlap Muan, the pair had a slow but eventual solid buildup of patrons. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Soleil Ho even added Shlap Muan to her constantly evolving “Best Fried Chicken in the Bay” list in 2019. But once the unforeseeable hammer of the pandemic hit in 2020, Hawk and Sophia were unable to maintain the restaurant, which serendipitously coincided with his parents wanting to retire. It was the silver lining the pair needed: a Long Beach restaurant they could move into, a community that recognized their food, and a chance to uplift not only themselves but Hawk’s hard-working, albeit tired, parents.
Down came his parents’ exhaustive Chinese American menu, with Hawk quickly removing dishes that didn’t sell or match their vision while simultaneously creating Cambodian-centric versions of the popular dishes. What did this mean? Garlic noodles instead of chow mein. And — an ode to his parents if there was ever one — the removal of a more standard orange chicken in favor of a spicier interpretation. (“Thank you, Panda Express, but that is not what I want people to know from my parents’ work,” Hawk says, laughing.) He replaced it with an orange habanero sauce that heightens the orange flavor and erases the bitterness from orange chicken’s chile flakes. The sauce, which can be ordered with Hawk’s perfectly fried wings, is a take on the dish that is as much Long Beach as it is Cambodian.
“My parents never really wanted me to get into the restaurant business because of how hard it is,” Hawk says. “And I witnessed that hardship but when I have these flavors, I return to a place that brings me peace and happiness. My parents are as much a part of this as me — and that’s honestly the most fulfilling and loving part of it all.”
Shlap Muan is open at 2150 E. South Street in Long Beach Wednesdays through Sundays from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.