Battambang Restaurant, 2501 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. (213) 439-9301. Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Monorom is the least opulent of Little Phnom Penh's restaurants. But the frail-looking lady behind its stoves has a knack for creating spectacular flavors.
Although Monorom's menu does describe some dishes in English, ordering has its share of frustrations. Here, as in most of the other restaurants, the Khmer name of a dish is not given in Roman letters, making it impossible to order most of the dishes except by pointing. And sometimes delicious-looking food appears on other tables that isn't on the menu at all.
But if you point or ask the owner what he has on special, you're likely to wind up with something wonderful. That's how I discovered \o7 nataing\f7 , one of the most delicious Cambodian dishes I've ever eaten. It looks like a bowl of chili and comes with puffy rice cakes and French bread, which you dip in the \o7 nataing\f7 . The secret of the dish's creaminess is the ground peanuts and coconut milk in the mild pepper-flavored sauce.
The first section of Monorom's menu lists rice plates, including a house specialty, pork stew over rice. Below the rice plates are 16 dishes, mostly written in Khmer. Count down to the eighth one (like all Cambodian restaurants, Monorom makes things tough for most of us by using Cambodian rather than Arabic numerals on the menu) and order \o7 tak kruen\f7 , a dip accompanied by a plate of vegetables. It's rather like \o7 praw hok k'tee\f7 , using grilled fish in place of meat, and is dressed with lime sauce, fresh Asian basil and chiles.
Monorom's fish sour soup with banana blossoms (third on the list) consists of catfish slices, tomatoes, pineapple and, of course, banana buds (think of them as hot-pink hearts of palm), in a clear, tangy broth generously sprinkled with fried garlic. The curry-like beef sour soup (fourth down), dosed with tart lime leaf and turmeric, is flecked with delicate, pointed "water grass" leaves that resemble very tender spinach. Water grass also appears, sauteed with bit of minced pork and a light sweet garlicky sauce, in the last (16th) dish on the list.
\o7 Monorom, 2150 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. (213) 987-0130. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. \f7 Peilin is one of the oldest of the Cambodian places. The large, open dining room is dazzling: vibrant coral-colored walls rimmed with electric blue and vermilion neon strips. And when the restaurant is full, which it often is at lunchtime, there's a lively energy in the room.
As at Battambang, the four-language printed menu primarily lists Chinese items and a table-top menu lists the Cambodian dishes in Khmer script. My Cambodian friends recommended the second item on the table-top menu, a home-style dish called \o7 samlaw. \f7 Cambodian cooks make many kinds of \o7 samlaws \f7 and this one, a soupy stew of quail and beef, included exotic vegetables such as Asian pumpkin and golf ball-sized eggplants.
We also had succulent Cambodian-style \o7 sates\f7 (fifth on the list), and a Cambodian beef salad (No. 6). This fresh-tasting toss of thinly cut beef and cabbage, bathed in a sweet-tart lime dressing, comes artfully garnished with red bell pepper strips and roasted peanuts.
You can try giant Asian prawns by ordering the crab soup, No. 57, and asking that "lobster" be substituted (Cambodian restaurants refer to their giant prawns as lobsters). The huge meaty prawns are cooked shell and all in a tart and spicy seafood broth fragrant with lemon grass.
\o7 Peilin Restaurant, 2232 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (213) 433-3810. Open 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. (Note: Peilin plans to move to 1350 E. Anaheim sometime in June.) \f7 Kim and Sophy Ngann have opened Royal Palace in the North Long Beach-Lakewood area, a suburban outpost of Little Phnom Penh. It has the usual Chinese menu that doesn't tell the whole story. In this case, the two back pages of the menu are written in Khmer, as are the Cambodian specialties listed on the wall above the buffet area. Sophy Ngann's descriptions of these are dependable.
The Nganns are justly proud of their \o7 sates\f7 , which make good appetizers. When you've finished them, bypass the first 20 items on the Khmer menu, all Chinese, for the more traditional Cambodian dishes, the 21st through 32nd, plus the 50th.
Of these, Kim Ngann recommended \o7 kapi cha kreung \f7 (29th down), one of the Cambodian dishes of minced meat to be dipped up with vegetables. This version, flavored with salty shrimp paste and a little chile, went perfectly with cool, tart slices of green mango.