Uncharted territory is on the menu at this Cambodian restaurant.
Asian immigrants spoiled us. Most cities would be happy to have one banh mi place. Here, we have 36, and debate the best. Satay? I say Indonesia, Hardena. Tom kha gai? Café de Laos. Pho? Child, please.
The industrious emissaries of the East have made South Philly one of the most interesting neighborhoods in which to eat, affording us decades to digest the star anise-scented intricacies of pho, and understand the carefully calibrated spices of Thailand’s colorful curries.
But what of Cambodian cooking, so close to the cuisines we know so well, yet still so foreign? Though the country’s cooking has long been alive on South Seventh Street, the heartline of Philly’s Cambodian populace, it’s largely inaccessible to outsiders. Enter Café de Laos owner Michael Raethong, who has given Cambodian cuisine a proper stage in Kavei, a former pho parlor in the shadow of the Oregon Diner. Kavei opened in November with a fresh Cambodian menu, accessorized with familiar Thai and Lao recipes I strictly ignored.
Which brings us to the shredded green mango staring me down. A blanket of dried shrimp powder covered the fruit like volcanic ash, and, try as I might, I just couldn’t eat it. Weird, considering I love the salty-sweet funk of fish sauce and even its funkier Cambodian cousin prahok. But fermented shrimp, it turns out, is much, much smellier than fermented fish.
Surely I’m not one of those people, I reasoned. The bone-and-fat-fearing, the spice-averse. Had Cambodian food outed me? (I did enjoy the PG Kavie dumplings filled with pork and water chestnuts, after all.) Usually, servers smile and nod in approval when I order at their restaurants. Here, my friendly, sweet and informative waitress called the outrageously flavorful grilled beef skewers basted in coconut milk I ordered—and loved!—“approachable,” or some equally disconcerting adjective. The nerve.
In the midst of this existential meltdown, I took some small comfort in the fact that at least Kavei’s kitchen wasn’t dumbing itself down for me. Three quarters of the clientele assembled beneath the dining room’s flashy chandeliers looked to have roots in Southeast Asia, including Raethong’s business partner and the restaurant’s Cambodian namesake, Kavei Han, whose cover band Yu was about to perform.
Just another bite. I had to. After eating there for years, I just got the waiters at Café de Laos to deliver curries at an acceptably aggressive spice level. If word got around, I’d be back to square one. But it wasn’t my imagination that the nhom svay kjei, unlike its artfully balanced Thai relative som tom, lacked equilibrium. Buried beneath all the shrimp powder, the sour mango could barely breathe.
Fortunately, I found plenty else to like about Cambodian food, described by Raethong as “similar to Thai, but less sweet and spicy.” Common threads include lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves, with meals based around sticky rice (really sticky at Kavei), somlor (soups or curries) and cha (stir-fries) seasoned with kroeung, a mahogany spice paste that, coating Kavei’s bony frog legs over clunky undercooked bell peppers, suggested cinnamon and cloves one bite, lemongrass and garlic the next.
I had cha kroeung prepared with chicken, too, (though that wasn’t the chicken dish I’d ordered), as well as some somlor nonong ma-om. Shiny and turmeric-gold, this winter melon soup steamed on the table, kicking up plumes of fragrant vapor that pulled me in like a whirlpool, past tilapia, tomato, pineapple and the zucchini-like nonong melon. Ma-om, an herb that thrives in flooded rice paddies, gave the hypnotic broth an unusual, complex inflection—citrusy yet savory—to its subtly sweet, sour, floral backdrop.
I paid the check and tried to skulk out before the busboy would notice the mango salad, alert his superiors and get me forever flagged as a member of the white-meat majority. In the end we’re all voyeurs, explorers just trying to get at something real. I didn’t want that jeopardized. But swiftly, the fiend intercepted my departure and began clearing plates. Don’t make eye contact. Head down. Fake text. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched, waited for him to pause at the mango. I held my breath as he got there. And it didn’t look like he cared at all.
Next week, Adam Erace reviews Koo Zee Doo. For more on Philly's food scene, visit blogalicious-adam.blogspot.com.■