“You walk into the restaurant, see the customers and you’d think you just stepped off a tuk-tuk or cyclo,” says Van Tan, one of the owners of Phnom Penh Noodle Shack. The place is reminiscent of a different time, perhaps a different world.
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and is known for its illustrious noodle scene with a thick Chinese influence you can taste in almost every dish. The Noodle Shack takes every opportunity to showcase the Cambodian geographical diversity; seafood from the Mekong Delta, rice noodles from the sprawling rice fields, fresh herbs, and vegetables from the Gulf of Thailand.
Van’s aunt and uncle fled their home country of Cambodia during Pol Pot’s communist regime, the Khmer Rouge. Over 2 million people were killed in those five years and millions fled the country, with a large portion of the population ending up in Long Beach, CA, which has since become a Khmer haven known as Cambodia Town.
His aunt and uncle decided to start a Khmer noodle-centered restaurant, not only to pay the bills but as a way to employ family members who would soon arrive in California. Van remembers being six years old and rolling egg rolls in the kitchen; running the shop was a collaborative family effort and remains to be to this day. He and his four siblings and cousins have since taken over the restaurant and have even opened a sister restaurant called RiceString in Cerritos, CA.
The restaurant is a way for local Cambodian refugees to connect with land they had fled, speak the language, and share similar war stories. Convening there helped them make sense of this extraordinary new world, and “get used to the American culture,” Van tells me. The antique wooden walls and wafting seafood broth elicits comfortability and a sense of belonging and welcomeness.
Van handed my friend and me about six dishes, each one different from the next. I asked him to sit down with me to explain what everything was and how best to tackle the eating part. I’d never tried Cambodian food but was eager to experience the mouth-watering dishes I had read about online. Each dish involved a different type of noodle, but the centerpiece was the seafood noodle soup. First, we devoured the Ba-Bong rice noodles topped with stir-fried beef, cucumber, mint leaves, bean sprouts, and the works. “No – no, you eat the soup with the ba-bong,” Van explains. The broth is used as a method for washing down the dry noodles, but it doubles to cleanse your palate from the acidic garlic fish sauce and beef. Although I must admit I found it quite difficult to remember to eat two dishes at the same time and greatly contributed to the state of near explosion I felt shortly thereafter. I was surprised to learn that back in Cambodia, eating noodles with broth is a normal breakfast. The Noodle Shack is open from 7 am until 3 pm, for some a wholesome breakfast, for others a satisfying lunch.
“You eat this food and you feel like a time traveler. For me to eat what they ate is a glimpse into their past and gives me an appreciation for their hardships.” Van hands me the cha quai, also known as Chinese drumsticks, a long piece of fried dough that you use to slurp up the broth or dip into sweet condensed milk. It’s a nod to the Chinese who introduced wheat to Cambodia. It was addictive. The simplicity and chewiness of the fried dough offered pleasant contrast to the hot, crunchy, and herb-filled noodle dishes. The condensed milk is so sweet that it likens to liquified frosting – a guilty dessert dish that is acceptable to eat during every meal. I’ll take that to go.
Phnom Penh Noodle Shack is most well known for their “trifecta” broth, a medley of chicken, pork, and beef which they simmer for hours. The deliciousness of the noodles hinges on getting the broth right and making it distinctly unique. Van tells me that the culture is very sustainable when it comes to food, “they don’t let anything go to waste,” and often discarded bits of vegetables and meat get tossed into the broth adding to its texture and depth. These broth recipes and methods have been passed from generation to generation and are felt like one of the main ways the Tans connect with their homeland. The broth is as much a collection of stories as it is a collection of local ingredients. Van and his co-owners intend to keep it in the family, something incredibly important to them and their business. The Khmer community in CA feels like a large extended family to them, and their love for food and culture prevails again and again.
To hear more about Van, the restaurant, and his family’s immigration story, be sure to listen to Episode Four of Eating America with India, where she explores the Cambodian diaspora in Long Beach through food and history. She discusses Cambodia’s long colonial rule, the Khmer Rouge, emmigration, and what it’s like to grow up in a restaurant kitchen. 100,000 restaurants have closed since the beginning of the pandemic, only adding more urgency in supporting these immigrant and Black-owned small-businesses who add to the richness of American multiculturalism. The series is created and produced by India Witkin. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Itunes, Podcast Addict, Overcast and Buzzsprout.
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Phnom Penh Noodle Shack: 1644 Cherry Ave, Cambodia Town, Long Beach, CA 90813. Tues-Sun: 7am – 3pm. (562) 433-0032. $ Recommended dishes: Ba-Bong, Mekatang, cha quai, seafood noodle.
India Witkin is a New York native, born to an Indian mother and Dutch/Italian father. She is a documentary filmmaker, singer and the podcast creator and host of Eating America with India.