As a white American raised in the Philly suburbs, my appreciation of the the wide breadth of Asian foods and their varied and intoxicating ingredients was late coming. A Havertown kid in the eighties thought that every Asian person they knew was Chinese. Looking back, I think they were mostly Korean. Asian food was also almost entirely Chinese, or at least its odd Chinese-American mutation, bought in restaurants fronted by fish tanks, which sold gummy, deep-fried sweet and sour pork in an unnatural, neon orange sauce.
In my teen years, if I ventured to the Main Line I could find sushi, raw and to my young mind still a bit suspect, and the first few Thai restaurants, where edamame in sea salt seemed exotic.
Now I live in South Philly, of which nearly every Asian immigrant group can claim at least a block or two. The more established immigrant communities offer more widely available restaurant quality food. Chinese, Japanese, and maybe Korean and Thai spots are ubiquitous throughout the city and suburbs. Exploring these cuisines is less about finding a restaurant, and more about finding a kitchen that compromises less for the Western palate.
Washington Ave. offers a bounty of Vietnamese options, alluring for their exotic ingredients and French influence. One can certainly find satisfaction in a banh mi, or a grilled meatball, but I’d rather be able to buy my noodles and broth without having to wade through a sea of hipsters dying to tell me how one should actually pronounce pho.
The harder to find Asian cuisines have piqued my interest lately, and I would like to share my experience with them, while at the same time supporting in a modest way the small business owners who make the life of a fat kid in South Philly so fulfilling.
Khmer Kitchen is a modest BYOB on Sixth and Morris. It offers a simple menu of appetizers, noodles, rices dishes, with both meat and fish. Cambodian food is similar to Thai and Vietnamese food, and shows the influence of Chinese, Indian and French cuisines. Fresh herbs, such as Thai basil, mint, cilantro and culantro are abundant. Turmeric, lemongrass, galangal and lime leaf can also be found in many dishes.
The status of the chili is lesser in Cambodian food as compared to Thai, with black pepper often providing the dish with its heat. Fermented fish paste is prevalent. It is often considered an acquired taste for Westerners, though becoming accustomed to its savory, umami undertone is certainly worthwhile.
I have sampled their Sach-Khoe Ang’, which is seasoned grilled beef, meant to be wrapped in lettuce with tuhk prah-hok, a sort of chutney or salsa of tomato and peppers, and lots of fresh herbs. It was perfect finger food, topped with a squeeze of lime.
I also had Sah-Law Ka-Koe. A sweet pumpkin stew, with green papaya and pork. Its fragrance and flavor was intoxicating, slightly sweet and silky.
The star, however was Prah-Hok Kahteeh. Which was simply crudite, served with minced pork, caramelized with shrimp paste and spices. It not only led me to exclaim, “Fuck ranch dressing!” I was actually left with a deep sense of loss that I had spent my life dipping raw vegetables in anything else.
I have read some internet whining about slow service, though it is not something I encountered. The service was earnest and polite, and even with takeout, they asked me if I had eaten Cambodian before, and gave instructions of how it is intended to be consumed.
Drop in with a bottle, or go for take-out.