By Keith Plocek
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Cambodian food with decibels at Hak Heang
2041 E. Anaheim St.
Long Beach, CA 90804
Region: Long Beach
Put down that Big Mac for a second and come with me on a trip to Cambodia by way of Long Beach's Anaheim Street, a claustrophobic stretch of road better-known as Little Phnom Penh, where there isn't a conventioneer or Queen Mary tourist in sight.
Here, you'll encounter shop signs with curvy Khmer script and an urban street scene straight out of some gritty cop show. Our stop is Hak Heang, a Chinese/Cambodian seafood restaurant that transforms into a wedding-banquet hall on most weekend nights. But arrive any time of day, and you're liable to run into a live band fronted by a bevy of singers in tight, slinky dresses belting out Cambodian pop songs at a volume so jarring it can be heard on the banks of the Mekong (or at least in the parking lot).
Expect them to play at all hours, even at 11 a.m. Those suffering from a hangover or expecting an intimate conversation over brunch are better off picnicking under an air-raid siren. Though at Hak Heang, you will be better-fed.
Since yelling above the racket is futile, order your food by pointing at the laminated picture menu.
It starts with a selection of noodle soups. Priced cheaply, the bowls are brimming with an endless array of proteins; everything from seafood, chewy meatballs, wontons and red-hued stewed beef to pig intestines can top your noodles. All will swim in a broth you'll want to sip and slurp to the very last drop.
If you prefer, you can have your starchy strands stir-fried. The best might be the seafood-fried-rice noodle, in which wide ribbons of chewiness get bathed in a silky gravy thickened with just enough cornstarch. It's tossed in a wok with crunchy Chinese broccoli, shrimp, imitation crab, fish cake and squid curls meticulously scored to look like pineapples.
But if you want something really special, explore Hak Heang's Chinese seafood dishes, which are done capably and served without the typical Chinese-restaurant attitude (read: they're actually polite, helpful and even friendly). These traditional plates dominate the roster and are the restaurant's proven cash cow, especially during those aforementioned wedding banquets.
Thrashing lobsters are fished out of holding tanks, disassembled, deep fried, then reassembled on a plate and presented to elicit oohs and ahhs from the table. Live crab gets the same treatment. And you can't go wrong with the fried fish. The pomfret, in particular, is dusted briefly in seasoned flour, slashed, plunged into hot oil and cooked to a rigid, golden crunch. A simple nuoc cham comes as a sauce to dribble over the flaky flesh and crackle-crusted skin.
Chase it with rice and plenty of ong choy with garlic sauce. The vegetable—a crunchy cousin to spinach—is done in the classic style here, as green as a lush jungle canopy and seared with a smoky flavor you can only get when the wok is blazing and the cook knows what he's doing.
There are also a few Cambodian dishes hidden among the Chinese choices, waiting to be discovered. Seek out the curry fish dip, an item that is both rudimentarily simple and complex. It starts with a plate of veggies. Then cabbage. Spongy eggplant. Snappy-skinned Thai eggplant. Cool cucumbers. All are raw and cut into wedges—use them as scoops for the curry, which is a meaty mush as sweet and comforting as porridge, tinged yellow with spices and enriched with coconut milk.
Other dishes, like the sadao salad with fish, are probably best left for Cambodian palates. To those unfamiliar, the sadao plant—a flowery stalk that looks like a cross between broccoli buds and baby's breath—may seem innocent and innocuous, but one bite will cause your face to implode into a pucker. Its bitterness surpasses radicchio, bittermelon and hell combined.
Of course, if you don't look like you can handle it, your waitress will warn you of this fact, though not without cheerfully adding that sadao is good for you. But if the adage is true that anything good is bad for your health, this dish should grant you immortality—more than you can say about a Big Mac.
Hak Heang, 2041 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-0296. Call for hours and to find out whether there's a wedding banquet going on. Lunch for two, $20-$40, excluding drinks.
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