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Long Beach’s Anaheim Street is to Cambodians what OC’s Bolsa Avenue is to Vietnamese. And for close to eight years, one of the most successful and beloved restaurants there was Sophy’s Thai and Cambodian. But in late 2008—a year after the largest community of Khmers outside Southeast Asia finally got city officials to designate them as the country’s first Cambodia Town—Sophy’s was forced to move out. Its landlord refused to renew the lease.
But luck and pluck have always characterized owner Sophy Khut and her crew. About the same time they were serving the last meal at the original location, she’d already gotten a new place ready to pick up where the old one had left off. Yes, it was seven blocks removed from her old hood, but in this building, recently vacated by a Chinese buffet, there would be four times the space. More important, it had its own parking lot. There would be no more tow-truck threats for those who couldn’t snag one of four designated spots at the old locale.
Of course, that doesn’t mean parking is now plentiful. The new lot is usually packed on weekend nights with the cars of the regulars who followed Sophy’s from Anaheim Street, as well as some newcomers.
3240 E. Pacific Coast Highway
Long Beach, CA 90804
Region: Long Beach
This location is more accessible for those who might have been intimidated by the depths of Anaheim Street. Also there’s the “Thai” part in the restaurant’s name; it serves as a jumping-off point, simultaneously a license to explore and also insurance that should things get too weird and exotic, you can always order pad Thai.
It’s not much of a stretch. Thailand does share a border with Cambodia, and the cuisines naturally have some commonalities. But make no mistake: Sophy’s roots are Khmer. It is arguably more faithful to its food culture than other Cambodia Town restaurants, which mostly mix in Chinese dishes for the purpose of hosting wedding banquets.
I would be lying, however, if I didn’t say I used its Thai designation to sell it to friends who wouldn’t have otherwise schlepped to Long Beach for a cuisine they knew nothing about. Only when we arrived did I add, “Oh, yeah, it’s Thai and Cambodian.”
My plan was to ease them into the Khmer dishes so gradually that by the second trip, I would get them to try the wince-inducing sadao plant, a quintessentially, notoriously Khmer ingredient.
But that first night, I threw them softballs. We started with the minced chicken larb, a faithful rendition of the Thai dish you already know, perky from lime juice and fenced in by raw cabbage wedges. Next, there was an eggplant, ground pork and pepper stir-fry that married its purple, brown and red colors as well as it did its flavors. Banh cheo—a turmeric-yellow crepe made from beaten egg folded over sautéed bean sprouts—impressed, but only if you haven’t had the crispier Vietnamese version at Brodard in Garden Grove.
On the second trip, I convinced them it was the crabmeat-flecked chan pu they wanted, not the pad Thai. The first strand of noodle we slurped zapped our tongues with electricity. The dish is very pale yet very hot—kind of like Anne Hathaway.
By the time they tore up Sophy’s Cambodian beef jerky into ragged strips, they’d forgotten all about the Thai. These peppery, crispy, deep-fried logs of meat—twisty and thick enough to rig a sailboat—have always been one of Sophy’s most popular dishes. The Chinese broccoli with crispy pork should also be a big seller, if it’s not already. The trick, though, is to eat all the fried-to-crunchy pork-belly pieces immediately; wait too long, and their soak in the gravy turns them into inedible leather.
It was a soup called somlaw machu kreoung that finally sold my tablemates on Khmer food. “This is better than tom kha gai,” one proclaimed, his mouth crammed with a heaping spoonful of its tender beef, Chinese watercress and tiny Thai eggplants. And it certainly is—at the very least, it’s more complex. This is the differential calculus to tom kha gai’s algebra. Most of its depth is due to the spice paste from which it takes its name. Kreoung is the distinctly Khmer formula consisting mainly of ground lemongrass, galangal and turmeric. The latter gives the liquid its yellow, curry-like hue, while the rest contributes to its lemony zest. Every sip is almost too intense by half and as nourishing as the Tonlé Sap.
And when we finally arrived at the sadao plant—which was meant to offset the bottom-dwelling muddiness of the baked catfish—they were already game. Without added encouragement, one plucked a small bud and placed it in his mouth. Almost instantly, his face imploded into a pucker. The plant looked as demure as baby’s breath, but it packed a knee-buckling quinine astringency that he said, “tasted like evil.”