Day 38: Cambodia
Being excited about something can only carry you so far. GirlfriendBites wants to go to Ikea, so I’m charged with the task of finding somewhere to eat that’s not too far from one. A part of me wants to be lazy and just say that today is Sweden Day, but a bigger part of me wants to try something a little more interesting. About fifteen minutes south of Ikea is the Cambodian restaurant Siem Reap in Long Beach, CA. It’s fairly well regarded, but there is some trepidation on account of there not being much of an online consensus on where to go for the best Khmer food in the LA area. But it’s not too far from the land of couches and strange kitchen equipment, so it wins the close decision, somehow, by default.
From the outside it looks like exactly the kind of grimy place that I will love and GFB will not, but once inside its a whole different story. A large open space with a big bar, a dance floor and lots of room between each table. It looks like one of those strangely enormous Chinese restaurants and this place does actually serve Chinese food, as well as Thai and Cambodian. I’d written down the names of some specifically Cambodian dishes, but upon opening the menu, I find that everything is written either in a script I don’t understand or in over simplified English like “Chicken with lemongrass”. Is that Chinese? Thai? Khmer? I have no clue. Some dishes are explained as Cambodian on the menu, but I decide to just ask our very friendly waitress. Two other employees get involved and have a strange level of interest in our being here, but seem genuinely happy about it. Our waitress brings us a plate of deep fried plantains and some sort of chewy coconut cylinder, saying “On the house”. It’s a welcome surprise, even though both were clearly made hours ago.
Now our actual food arrives. Chicken with Thai holy basil, which I’ve read is different from Thai basil or even Thai lemon basil, is placed in front of us. A whole baked catfish, crispy, but with a deep black coloration and an area on the bottom of the head which is so hard that my fork does nothing but bounce off of it, making a sound like two practice Kendo swords smacking into each other. They bring out two skewers of sweetly glazed beef served with a side of old tasting green papaya salad and some complimentary mystery soup, which is basically just a very salty and vaguely meaty broth. I tackle each dish, reserving judgment until I can get a better grasp of it all, but every single dish just seems to have some strange undercurrent of flavor and I can’t tell if it’s the cuisine or the restaurant. GFB tries to figure it out. “If fresh is a taste and not an indication of whether it is actually fresh, then this is the opposite taste of that.” There are some strange, dark flavors buried in everything and I must say, it’s not the most welcoming taste in the world. I’m someone who generally goes into these things with an open mind, even with an expectation that it will be good, but there is something here I just can’t seem to get totally comfortable with. The strange flavor isn’t the sourness that is a part of each dish— which is a taste that I like— but something altogether different. The wait staff take turns checking on us with startling interest as my excitement for the meal has devolved to the point that I just want to make sure that the amount of food we leave on the table looks respectful of the work the restaurant has done for us.
Pretty soon, there is a general feeling of discomfort over us and we just want to get out of here. The food has been consumed to a perfectly acceptable level, so we pay the bill and make it inside the car. In most of the cases like these, I tend to give the country the benefit of the doubt and assume that my dislike is the cause of the restaurant. But today I’m legitimately wondering if there is, for the first ever, a cuisine that I just plain don’t like. The surprising and new flavors that I have come across with past countries have made me both excited and comforted at the same time. These ones, sadly, did the exact opposite. If I am offered another chance to try Cambodian food somewhere highly recommended, I will surely give it a shot, but at this moment, I’m happy to move on to the next cuisine and leave this stuff be for a while.
1810 E Anaheim St
Long Beach, CA 90813
Food Breakdown: 2 non-alcoholic beverages, 1 appetizer, 2 entrees
Distance From My House: 27.1 miles