Yesterday I made a short trip that took me farther away than I expected. The review that I’d read in the local paper said I was headed for a place with good, cheap Khmer food; Yelp was filled with young Cambodian voices saying it had the food their grandmothers cooked. So I went to
Center and found the spot wasn't too far from other places I'd been to in the area, housed in a diner with a little
I was there to meet my son Nick and I was early so I went into the grocery. The door was open, the counter was bustling, and the customers were speaking Khmer, which I thought was a very good sign. A little produce section had the pea-sized green eggplant that’s a major ingredient in green curry, which I haven’t seen in this city for over a decade, so I was enchanted. Going to the counter with that and a pack of phrik ki nu, I noticed the woman in front of me had a little package of perfectly red rambutan. “You have that here?” I asked in delighted shock and she led me to a pile of plastic-wrapped thorny red orbs.
I returned to Queen’s Deli, glowing with discovery and was led to a table that was sticky from earlier inhabitants. I didn’t care, even when the laminated menu also turned out to be a bit worse for wear. I was dazzled by the choices, mostly soups, two that claimed to be “ancient” and that I’d never seen before in any form. Others were reminiscent of Thai dishes, and one had clear echoes of ragu.
I asked for appetizers—fried chicken skewers and nom krok, prepared like kanom krok but “Not sweet,” I was told. Each of them could have been their own meal, the cakes solid with a filling that was I think rice and coconut milk, and the chicken was fried wings, absolutely delectable, a whole plate of them.
My “ancient” soup was on the menu as being a noodle dish with an assortment of vegetables. I thought it would be a simple, clear broth, with noodles that I hoped would be thick, and chopped vegetables both in the bowl and on the side. What I received were three hearty nests of kanom jeen noodles, a cloud of finely chopped and sliced vegetables on the side, and a bowl of green broth. I sniffed it and was amazed at its fragrance.
The beans that came with it were chopped as finely as if they were chiles, the cabbage was in slivers and I think it was daikon that was almost a dream of its former self, so fine that it nearly melted when I picked it up with my chopsticks. And the banana blossom was in thin, concentric circles, crisp and bitter. “This hasn’t been frozen, has it?” I exclaimed in a state of near ecstasy and the man who was clearly the owner said proudly, “From Florida.”
The broth was filled with flavors that were clear and yet mingled into something that I couldn’t pick apart into its separate components. Fish sauce was plainly in evidence but no coconuts had been brought into play in any form. Still the broth had substance and I couldn’t decide where its body came from until I neared the bottom of the bowl, where a layer of pureed aromatics rested. “Yes, we thicken it with lemongrass, tamarind, and galingal,” the owner told us. At that point I had to clamp my jaws together to keep from asking him to marry me.
Nick’s soup had a coconut milk underpinning but the flavor of fresh vegetables was prominent in the broth. The vegetables were in small chunks and their colors were still bright in the bowl. My soup, I decided, was a very sophisticated form of kanom jeen
We crumbled our way through the doughnut and sesame ball that were given to us at the end of our meal, and I felt a bit shamefaced when the internal egg yolk that we’d avoided turned out to be a filling of yellow bean paste and coconut.
Through our meal, the low murmur of old men speaking Khmer and the sweetness of Cambodian pop music videos formed the background noise. I left feeling warmed by
and deeply happy that a part of a country I love is only a bus ride away.