Grilled beef and anchovy salad from Little La Lune Cuisine. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
In Long Beach's Cambodia Town, restaurants are measured not only by the heat of their ground pork curries or the tartness of their sour catfish soups but also by the brilliance of their chandeliers and the strength of their karaoke-capable sound systems. For years, La Lune was such a place, a restaurant where birthday parties were celebrated, anniversaries were commemorated and mayoral campaigns were launched.
But in April, a fire wiped out La Lune. Losing the restaurant tore open a void in the Khmer community, one that the Saing family worked quickly to fill. Now La Lune has been refined and reborn as Little La Lune, a small-scale spinoff in a quiet strip mall with ambitions beyond its downsized dining room. Little La Lune isn't simply leveraging its legacy; the restaurant represents a new wave, a contemporary Cambodian cafe designed for a new generation.
Little La Lune is a picture of Modernism. A bouquet of pendant lamps casts columns of light onto wine-red walls. Radiant white booths glow with a halo of backlighting. It's a stark contrast to Cambodia Town's biggest banquet halls, where decades-old dining rooms remain unchanged, as if being preserved for historical study. Little La Lune's menu too has been recalibrated. Gone are the hallmarks of the banquet kitchen: no hulking lobster tails, no caldrons of Cantonese-style soup, no oversize platters of dessert. The menu instead has been pared down to the most approachable essentials.
Morning brings bowls of congee. The Cambodian iteration of rice porridge is a true soup, broth teeming with swollen grains of rice, slivers of fried garlic and a scattering of cilantro. Pork is the prevailing order (perhaps for the extra bits of offal that find their way into each bowl), but the chicken and catfish porridges are each as satisfying. Add a batch of bean sprouts and a squeeze of lime for texture and tang. Then order the freshly fried Chinese crullers known as cha kwai, dippable doughnuts that could probably fuel you through a marathon.
Those who pass on porridge almost inevitably slurp the Phnom Penh noodle soup instead. It's a surfeit of seafood: pillowy fish balls, plump shrimp, rings of squid, dried baby shrimp, rice noodles, cilantro and fried garlic. The soup is the standard by which many Cambodia Town restaurants are measured, and Little La Lune's is very good — a polished broth that tastes faintly of the ocean, seafood that embodies its provenance.
Sdao salad is one of the most distinctive dishes in Khmer cooking. The tender shoots of a tree known in India as neem, the vegetable is prized for its medicinal properties, which are said to help treat malaria, diabetes, chicken pox and a number of other maladies. At Little La Lune, sdao's broccoli-like buds are strewn over a hillock of bean sprouts, cucumber, scallions, roasted pork and hunks of fish. Sdao is astoundingly acrid, a concentrated blast of bitterness contained within each baby blossom. But the salad seeks balance, which is found in the slightly sweet fish sauce dressing.
Thai flavors prevail in the crispy noodle salad. It's a far less intense option: a nest of fried egg noodles, shredded cabbage and carrots, bean sprouts, cilantro, scallion, mint, crushed peanuts, slices of just-grilled beef and a lime-laced dressing. It's citric and refreshing, an excellent rendition of a familiar dish.
The beef satay can all but make a meal. They're superb skewers, charred gobbets of beef lacquered with sweet soy and perfumed with lemongrass. A green papaya salad is served alongside still-crisp strands of fruit lashed with citrus — a perfect palate cleanser.
There's also beef lok lak, the Khmer classic of stir-fried beef paired with a peppery lemon sauce. But consider instead cha kroeng, either tiny nuggets of chicken, hunks of beef or frog legs rubbed with a lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf paste. Pork plays no small role here, either, with both the capably fried pork chitterlings and the sweet soy-marinated pork chop.
Dessert doesn't afford the same opportunity for indulgence as it did at La Lune, but try the taro shake, a lilac-colored slush thick with mild tinges of vanilla and coconut. La Lune may be gone for now, but the Saing family has made sure that at Little La Lune there's plenty to celebrate.
Little La Lune
Location: 2054 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach, (562) 856-5800, http://www.littlelalune.com
Prices: Appetizers and salads, $4.90 to $8.90; noodle soups and porridges, $4.50 to $5.50; rice and noodle dishes, $4.50 to $6.95; meat and seafood entrees, $7.90 to $8.90.
Details: Open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.