It was a bitter flower salad, indeed, to learn about the closing this spring of Khmer Kitchen, my go-to spot for a funky fix of prah-hok kahteeh ground pork dip, bowls of bracing sour soups, and those marvelous curried mussels. Within just a few years of its opening in 2012, the Neth family’s cheery corner BYOB had become a touchstone restaurant for the rising generation of an immigrant community and helped introduce the allure of Cambodian food in all its fragrant fermented spice to many Philadelphians who never knew Cambodia Town even existed.
The South Seventh Street corridor between Oregon and Snyder that was once a Jewish neighborhood has been a growing nexus for Cambodian refugees since the mid-1980s. And nearly half the city’s estimated 18,000 Cambodians still live near that South Philadelphia strip, frequenting its older cafes — Heng Seng and New Phnom Penh — for steaming morning bowls of Phnom Penh noodle soup, shopping its produce markets for tiny eggplants and fermented prahok fish paste; visiting its dressmakers, salons, travel agents, and the little sidewalk grills that pop up in warm weather with grandmas tending to sizzling skewers of lemongrass-scented meats.
But this community — long overshadowed by the area’s much larger Vietnamese presence, and with a population that arrived impoverished and poorly educated — recently has begun to emerge in its own right as those who arrived as children decades ago have started businesses of their own to proudly reassert the flavors of their Cambodian heritage. Rick Neth and his family at Khmer Kitchen were among the first to do this. So, too, are Kado Un and his wife, chef Sarin Sieng, whose cheery red Boba & Co. food truck has brightened a vacant corner lot Sixth and Moyamensing with bubble teas, stinky durian shakes (“Return of the King!”), and grilled chicken wings stuffed plump with lemongrass sausage that are worth the trip for lunch.
“We weren’t too proud of our culture in the early days, because we were just trying to survive, and we got bullied,” says Un, 38, a courier truck driver when not running Boba, who arrived in Philadelphia as an infant. “But we’re the underdogs. And the younger generation realizes now we should appreciate our culture more. ”
Few places have taken on that mission as proudly as the sweetly named I Heart Cambodia, a pleasantly appointed 50-seat BYOB that opened on South Seventh Street in early 2015. And I surely would have included it on my prah-hok roster sooner had it not been mysteriously closed during posted open hours on multiple attempts to visit in its early days.
But with the closing of Khmer Kitchen, I was determined to try again. And when I stepped inside one recent weekend day during a detour from a tamale run through some Mexican restaurants nearby, the intoxicating aroma of soup bowls lifted by the scent of roasted garlic commanded me to stay.
Owner Wood Kaeng’s kitchen covers all the traditional favorites with a homemade touch that reminded me exactly why I love Cambodian food. It shares similarities with its neighboring cuisines in Thailand and Vietnam, but, with fermented fish paste funk, is decidedly punchier than Vietnamese food; is less sweet than much of the Thai food Philadelphians know; and is so tuned to levels of bitterness and sourness that it can take a moment for some American taste buds to adjust. But there is also such a freshness and complexity to something like the bitter flower salad known as sadao, that, a few beats after I began munching the astringent green neem tree buds brightened in tangy tamarind dressing and tender shrimp, they were impossible to resist.
There are, perhaps, some easier transition dishes for newcomers. I Heart Cambodia makes some fantastic stir-fried rice tinged with sweet soy and sesame. Its summer rolls and crispy little spring rolls stuffed with cabbage and soft taro are spot-on. Its rendition of the Vietnamese stir-fried beef favorite lok lak brings tender morsels of flank steak marinated in fish sauce and soy. A vivid herb paste of lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime lifts the stir-fried lemongrass beef on the sweet perfume of holy basil. A chicken curry in vivid orange coconut broth could be mistaken for a Thai dish until a tidal undertow of fermented shrimp paste called kapit gives it a layered Cambodian spin. A plateful of lacquered quails are good enough to eat solo. But when you dip those tawny chunks of bony dark meat into the little side dish of lime juice and pepper, it’s like someone turned the light on to a whole new level of flavors.
The soups are universally great, beginning with the Phnom Penh noodles, which recall Vietnamese beef pho but which are made from pork bones and a subtler base of aromatics, tilting toward the umami of mushroom and the ambrosia of fried fresh garlic bits floating on top of a brew also filled with tender bits of pork and mixed seafood. But don’t miss some of the richer stews, like somlor kor kou, in which pork ribs are slow-cooked with papaya, eggplants, and sweet pumpkin in a broth that’s thickened with roasted rice.
I Heart Cambodia serves not one, but two variations of the pra-hok crudité platter (spelled “brahok” on this menu). The first version, called brahok ktis, is closest to what was served at Khmer Kitchen, its tender crumbles of pork vibrant with the oily orange spice of chili paste and lemongrass, and a dose of fermented fish funk softened by the creamy richness of coconut milk. My favorite, though, was the edgier brahok krorsang, which had no coconut milk buffer, and instead was tinted an herbal green with the pulp of krasang fruit, which added a pleasantly sour note to the dip I spread over slices of raw baby eggplants, cucumbers, and cabbage leaves.
Friendly manager Alice Tang did an excellent job guiding us over the course of a couple of meals through highlights of the big menu (especially while Kaeng remains overseas on an extended trip). But perhaps her best recommendation was to go for the restaurant’s whole fish. I’m normally not a fan of tilapia. But these are big and meaty two-pounders, and I Heart Cambodia expertly prepares them for a communal feast, slicing diagonal vents into the side of the flesh for easy plucking off the bone, then frying them so deftly — with no apparent breading — that the skin crisps into a tawny cracker webbed with lace where scales once were.
The fish served in ginger sauce is clearly the choice with widest appeal, its saucy gravy sweet and sour with fermented beans, ginger, and tamarind that made for one of the best whole fish I’ve had in a while. But I was most fascinated by the fish served whole with tamarind dip on the side, along with a stack of lettuce leaves and plume of bitter flowers. Those budding branches are intense on their own, musky and herbaceous with an astringent smack befitting the name. But when I wrapped a sprig inside a delicate sheet of green lettuce against the softness of flaky white fish, the crackle of skin and then a moistening splash of tart tamarind elixir, the whole bundle sent my taste buds spinning — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savory, sweet, earthy, briny, tangy — until they finally settled on yum. And kept going until there was nothing but fish bones left.
The flavors lingered long for what was a satisfying and reassuring meal. One of my old favorites may be gone with the closing (at least for now) of Khmer Kitchen, but it’s good to know I’ve found another worthy destination in this friendly BYOB, where the heart of Cambodia Town’s future still beats strong.