I worked an extra long day today. Slow traffic at the store translated into light sales, so I stuck around an extra hour hoping to meet a few more customers. By the time I wrapped up at 8:00pm I was bushed and ready from some grub.
I felt like my body needed something relatively healthy after the trip in on Wednesday--a mean collection of tollway oasis fast food that I'd rather not discuss, followed by a chopped shoulder dinner at Mt. Pleasant BBQ, big enough to feed two people.
So tonight I zeroed in on Phnom Penh, a great Cambodian/Vietnamese joint on the far west side of Cleveland. Since discovering it, Dad and I have visited this place nearly everytime we hit Cleveland. It's located on a dingy stretch of Lorain Avenue; not a dangerous neighborhood, just a place that's probably (hopefully) seen better days. The restaurant itself is, how shall I put this...gritty. Not dirty or unsanitary, but...gritty. If Jane and Michael Stern focused Roadfood on Cambodian/Vietnamese joints, Phnom Penh would be a preeminant listing for Cleveland. Great food, a bit run down, full of character; a place where the locals love to eat because they serve huge portions for next to nothing.
So imagine my dismay when I pulled up to the reataurant and saw a new sign announcing a new name, "Cuisine Du Cambodge", and a banner underneath stating, "Under New Management". Okay, I'm tired, I'm hungry, and it's 8:30pm on a Thursday. I have no choice but to give this a shot.
I walk in and the first thing I notice is the distinct lack of grit. Some joker has had the bright idea to slap a fresh coat of paint and add a whole bunch of new, upscale Cambodian cultural artifacts on the walls. And there are no customers. Bear in mind that every other time I've been here, there have always been at least a couple other tables already seated when I got there.
This does not bode well.
But I can't walk out now, so let's get a table for one, please. All I can tell you is, in spite of all the bad omens, my dinner was...Astonishing. That is the only word for it; astonishing.
I started out with the Chicken Salad, a dish we've had here in the past. Thin ribbons of bok choy tossed with shredded breast meat, julienned cucumbers, onions, and green peppers, all of it drenched in a mouth watering (literally) sweet and sour vinaigrette dressing and topped off with chopped peanuts. Previous versions have had a hint of fennel (a flavor I'm not overly fond of, but it was so inconsequential in this masterful salad that I put up with it), but I didn't miss it at all in the current offering.
For my entree, I wanted to try something I'd never tried before, so I opted for the Cambodian Crepe (Banh Xeo). It was a triumph! This was a culinary nose thumbing by the Cambodians toward their French colonizers that said, "You may have occupied our country for decades, ransacked our local culture, and forced your cuisine on us, but now we are going to take your beloved Crepe and make it our own--and make it better than you ever could!"
This was a Crepe made out of rice flour and coconut milk; thicker than a typical French crepe, almost as thick as a pancake, but still very pliable; enough so that it could fold over the ingredients without splitting at the fold. And what ingredients! Shrimp, ground pork, chopped carrots and beansprouts inside, then topped off with shredded lettuce, matchsticks of cucumber, and ground peanuts with more of that irresistable sweet and sour sauce for dipping.
The first thing I noticed was the remarkable texture. The rice flour gave the exterior of the crepe an almost audible crunch. That gave way to a rich, creamy interior made possible by the coconut milk. To put it in Roadfood terms, imagine the perfect Hash Brown Potatoes: a crispy, deep brown crust with a velvety inside. Wow. Then add in that filling of shrimp and pork with the perfect crunch of the veggies, all soaked in the sweet and sour and you understand what I was experiencing.
When I sat down, my intent was to eat half the salad and half the entree and pack up the rest for breakfast. No such luck. I couldn't stop eating this meal; it was that addictive.
So, now the backstory: it turns out that when Dad and I discovered Phnom Penh about five years ago, it was already in the hands of its second or third operator. The family that started the place, long before we ever got there, was leasing it to other would be restaurateurs. They still owned the building but wanted to spend more time with their kids. About three months ago, the lease with the operator ran out and the original family--kids all grown up now--decided to move back in. So the "New Management" was actually the original founders of the joint!
I'm scheduled to return to Cleveland in July. I'm not sure where I'm going to be eating yet, but I'm pretty sure one of my stops will be at Cuisine Du Cambodge.
Full report tomorrow after buffetbuster and I meet up for Polish cafeteria food at Sokolowski's and Polish Boy sandwiches at Mt. Pleasant BBQ.
P.S. The tab for my dinner--the chicken salad, the over-stuffed crepe and a tall glass of mango juice? $9.95 plus tip! Take that Frenchies! Cuisine Du Cambodge
13124 Lorain Avenue
Cleveland, OH 4411
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