You probably know Mang S. Keo's food even if you don't know his name. He and his wife, Eng H. Liev, operated Pnomh Penh at its original location on Madison Avenue in Lakewood before moving the critically acclaimed restaurant to West 131st St. and Lorain in the early 90s.
They took nine years off from the food scene before resurfacing at the same address in June 2011 with Cusine du Cambodge. Like their previous ventures, it delivers incredible food at an incredible price.
"Thai food is very time-consuming and expensive to make," says Keo. "It places a lot of emphasis on presentation. With Cambodian food, the emphasis is on flavor and taste. As a rule, it won't be presented as beautifully as Thai food, but it'll be delicious."
He's right on the delicious description, but sells himself short on the presentation. Since carryout constitutes the bulk of their trade, we dined-in and took-out, and truthfully, the only difference we found was that everything looks better on china plates from the kitchen as opposed to Styrofoam containers – no surprise there.
Cuisine du Cambodge's menu is extensive and a bit overwhelming for a novice Cambodian, but Keo is incredibly patient and informative, whether on the phone or bouncing around the dining room greeting diners by name.
The carryout order consisted of two soups, which came in quart-sized containers. (You can order six of the 18 homemade soups in a smaller size as well.) First up was Ho Bo Vien, a meatball soup that is packed with flavor; the tasty little meatballs are much denser than the Italian version I'm used to, but supremely scrumptious. Next up: Hue Beef Soup. It was spicy, as indicated on the menu, and served with round rice noodles, sliced pork patties, beef brisket seasoned with lemongrass cinnamon and hot tropical fresh spices. Both soups come with a lemon wedge and bean sprouts. Both were quite good, displaying layers of texture and flavor.
On to the main event: the spicy indicator once again sold me on the Chili City Kuy Tiev Chha. As a spice primer: You can choose from medium, spicy or the secret spice level that isn't printed on their menu -- "Asian Hot." This dish consists of a stir-fried noodle with a special sauce, red tomato paste, egg and bean sprouts. Like most items on the menu, you can choose your own protein or go veggie. I opted for the chicken on the initial run and it was so sensational I couldn't resist the urge to have it again, though I added shrimp the second time around.
The description of the Chha Kreoung Ma Rass Prow rang a few bells from a dish I've enjoyed at Ty Fun Bistro, but this version included whipped coconut cream. I've had plenty of Thai dishes with coconut milk before, but this sounded more decadent and exotic. It was. They also include a flavorful picante mixture of lime leaves, garlic turmeric root, galanga root, aromatic mint and fresh lemongrass, stir-fried with onion and red and green peppers, topped with crushed roasted peanuts, served over steamed rice (available with vermicelli instead of rice).
By the time we had a chance to dine in, I was suffering from the bubonic plague, or maybe the flu, or maybe some mystery illness yet undiscovered outside of the Amazon, but chicken soup of some sorts was necessary in addition to appetizers. The Khmer Chicken and Seafood Rice Soup, a delicious chicken-based broth chock full of seafood, rice, mushrooms, and more, didn't cure me, but it at least made me forget I was sick for awhile. In addition, we sampled the Cha Gio – two spring rolls, fried extra crispy – and the Stuffed Chicken Wings – think falafel-y stuffing, but better.
In addition to the previously mentioned Chili City Kuy Tiev Chaa, we ordered the house specialty, Chha Bun Kari Kroup Muk, on Keo's recommendation. It's their signature dish; a slightly sour, curry-seasoned dish with stir-fried vermicelli, shrimp, chicken, chicken patties, sliced eggs, baby bok choy, onions, tofu and scallions, topped with chopped peanuts. It clearly deserves the notable distinction on the menu – just a fabulous comingling of ingredients in full harmony.
Entree portion sizes, like the soups, run on the abundant side, so plan on sharing with friends at the table or simply utilize the 'now and later' method and have them pack the rest to go.
Since it was too early for cocktails -- although you are welcome to BYOB -- I had a mango smoothie. It's extremely rich in mango flavor and I couldn't help wondering how it might taste with a little bourbon or rum, which is a mystery that will be solved on our next trip.
When you visit Cuisine du Cambodge, surprise Keo by referring to the basil as "red basil" rather than "Thai basil." He'll be impressed.
And even if you don't, he'll probably remember your name next time anyway.