Growing up in New York City, I developed a taste for all sorts of cuisines—the more obscure, the better. Yet despite years of experimental eating, I never encountered Cambodian food. Until I started school in Providence, Rhode Island.
The Cambodian population in Providence began to grow during the reign and eventual fall of the Khmer Rouge, in the late 1970s. It's now a substantial immigrant group with more than 10,000 people. The cuisine relies heavily on rice as well as familiar Asian flavors like soy sauce, lemongrass, tamarind, ginger, and coconut milk. Fish is also a staple, though Westerners don't always get behind the fermented and salted preparations.
There are two popular Cambodian restaurants in Providence: Angkor and Apsara Palace. Only a few miles apart, the two joints thrive with all the Brown University students and other East Side residents. I dropped by both to see what authentic Cambodian food is all about.
Angkor is a region in Cambodia that served as the seat of the Khmer Empire between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Angkor the restaurant prides itself on a wide but not overwhelming variety of Cambodian dishes, and not too many generic "Asian restaurant" staples. Having only visited Angkor once before, I asked my very friendly Cambodian waitress for her recommendations.
Her first suggestion was street noodles, the dish that "people always come back for." It consisted of wide, flat rice noodles tossed with a sauce flavored with curry powder and coconut milk. The noodles were slightly overcooked and the dish became a little one-note after a few bites. But I could certainly see the appeal of a heaping pile of hot, well-seasoned noodles and meat. Especially to the local college crowd.
Her second recommendation, for "something a little lighter," was much more delicious. The bee boong: thin noodles in a peanut broth with a bunch of fresh vegetables, well-cooked shrimp, and delicious egg rolls. I couldn't stop eating this bowl of steaming noodles, each bite with a new combo of ingredients.
333 Wickenden Street, Providence RI 02903 (map) 401-383-2227
Apsara Palace is very well-regarded among the East Side community. It prides itself on serving Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese cuisine, though a quick glance through the several-pages-long menu reveals a number of Chinese staples as well. The word "apsara" in Khmer refers to a female nymph or beauty.
I turned once again to my (somewhat chillier) waiter for recommendation. The lemongrass dry stir-fry with chicken is "probably the most Cambodian you can get here." Certainly tasty and not overwhelmingly lemongrassy, but the peanut-heavy sauce was still herbal. Jalapenos gave a good spice muted by meeker bell peppers and onions, and the chicken was well-cooked. There was nothing shocking about the dish, but it was a tasty heap of food nonetheless.
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