Someday, if they ever toss me out of this gig, I’m going to start my own nonprofit. Queer Eye for the New American Chef will offer low-budget makeovers to deserving immigrant cooks. “No, no, no,” I’ll admonish Mrs. Nguyen. “I know the green and white linoleum is half price, but I forbid you to buy it!” I’ll screech at Mr. Lopez, “Someone tear down those cracked mirrors on the double and slap two coats of terracotta paint on the walls!” I’ll beg Ms. Salah, “Before you send that menu to the printer, could I please just proofread it?”
Who says restaurant critics can’t change lives for the better?
Since my college days, I’ve been addicted to the inverse glamour of the gritty little Asian restaurant. Still, it astounds me how little effort it would take for my favorite sticky-table joints to double their sales. Middle-class Americans are easy: Paint the walls a color out of Martha Stewart Living, buy some decent china, and force your waiters to smile — you’ll be able to hike up your prices in no time flat. Sure, downscale foodies like me will start muttering about how you’ve sold out, but we don’t have to pay your rent.
Look at the success of places such as Soi4 in Rockridge and Vo’s Restaurant in San Leandro. They’re not just good places to eat — they’re good places to take a date. Of course, there are other restaurants that use classy design to get away with mediocre food. But that’s as true of French bistros as of Vietnamese ones.
The Do family, the owners of the new Phnom Penh House in Oakland’s Laurel neighborhood, have caught on. Their original Phnom Penh House on 8th Street in Chinatown is a much-loved classic of the scuffed-table, tattered-menu variety. But at the new restaurant, run by Ricky Do, you’ll find thick goblets on the table for your ice water, and your beer comes poured into tall, fluted glasses. The menu is encased in heavy leatherette, the kind you bind photo albums in. Alternating walls are painted shades of ochre, sage, and cream, so that each time you look at the room from a different angle, the colors align themselves anew. Definitely dateworthy. Yet they keep most entrées below $10.
On one of my visits to PPH2 I brought my friend Derek, who was born in Cambodia, to help me order and vet the dishes for authenticity. The fish cake, spongy and meaty, with a sweet-sour dipping sauce, passed muster with both of us. So did the green papaya salad. The crunchy threads were coated in a puckery lime-juice dressing, fish sauce fleshing out its flavor without coming to the fore, and flashes of chile and the herb the Vietnamese call rau ram — it’s like cilantro on uppers — lighting up in the mouth.
Derek also picked out moarn bouk, a dish his mother makes. Some Southeast Asian menus describe moarn bouk as “angel wings.” Body Mass Index must not matter in heaven, because these wings are plump: With feats of knifemanship I would never master in a million years, the chefs carve the bones out of all but the tips of chicken wings and stretch the skin around a mixture of ground pork, cloud ear, and bean threads. I found the stuffing underseasoned, but the interplay between the papery, crisp skin and the moist insides was exquisite.
All three were served, mind you, on square black plates. Square black plates! I could hear Carson and Thom clinking their martini glasses in approval.
Everyday food in Cambodia tends to center on seafood and vegetables, not meat. Many of the dishes on PPH’s menus are special-event meals, not everyday dinners. Two of those feast-day dishes impressed us the least: filleted fish with carrots, peas, and eggplants, for one, in a curry so thinned with coconut milk that the spices dissipated. Another was the hamok. I’ve tried other versions of this steamed salmon mousse that were studded with so much lemongrass and galangal that you wanted to dab the mousse behind your ears instead of eating it. PPH’s hamok lacked the same perfume, and was steamed in a bowl instead of banana leaves. The bowl collected the steam and watery juices instead of sloughing them away.
In contrast, one of the humblest dishes, the sachkor ang, or charbroiled beef, was one of the most potent. The skewers of beef (it comes in pork and chicken, too), rubbed with a thick spice paste that contained enough sugar to caramelize on the grill, were good on their own. But when we spooned bits of a peppery vinegar-based sauce overtop, and crunched sweetly pickled cabbage leaves between bites, I tasted the beef in corners of my mouth that I’d long forgotten.
No Cambodian meal should start without soup, Derek said, so on my next visit we started with the beef and eggplant soup. Little beads of chile oil on top left the lips tingling, and the broth had that sour, lemongrass-infused kick of a good Thai tom kha.
The Cambodian food we find at Bay Area restaurants is largely blended with Vietnamese and Chinese cuisines in order to appeal to non-Cambodians. According to Cambodian Community Development, a social service agency in Oakland, there are only 4,300 Cambodians living in Oakland, so to make it local restaurants tone down the prahok (sometimes called “fish cheese,” which gives you some idea of its pungency) and turn up the sugar.
Many of the other dishes were quite similar in taste to those found at American Thai restaurants, albeit good ones. The maorn cha jee, chicken with green beans and chile, had some of the same heat-defusing sweetness of PPH’s Thai counterparts. A spoonful of sugar gave a slight Southeast Asian cast to an otherwise Chinese-tasting vegetarian abalone (tender wheat-gluten puffs) with broccoli in a soy-based sauce. The trei chap chean turk chou aim combined ground pork and three sauces on top of a deep-fried whole pompano fish: one sauce with sweet fermented soybeans, one with ginger, and one with chiles, so that they swirled together into a sugary, kicky coating. The kitchen had deboned the fish underneath, deep-fried the strips of meat, then reassembled the entire fish. Like so many of PPH’s dishes, it was both casual and stylish. For $12.95.
Do you love someone who needs the Queer Eye for the New American Chef? Until I assemble my own fabsome, take them to dinner at #2 for inspiration. Perhaps they’ll get the picture.