Long Beach Lunch: Crystal Thai Cambodian Cuisine
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Long Beach might be home to the largest stateside population of Cambodians, but it's still not as easy as one might think to find a home-style hole in the wall that kills it with Khmer classics. Most of the Cambodian restaurants along the culture's main central-city corridor are designed as catering venues, replete with sparkling stage decor and oversized dining rooms perfect for serving up more-approachable standards at that next special occasion.
Crystal Thai Cambodian has none of that. Separated from the Cambodia Town drag by only a few blocks, the barely marked space attached to the city's oldest Khmer market, Bayon, is as close as it gets to having a yiey (grandma) of your own.
An eating area the size of an actual home's dining room is the first sign that Crystal isn't the same as other local kitchens churning out beef lok lak. And a menu that tops out at more than 100 dishes--from salads to curries to even the Cambodian version of balut--solidifies a versatility that could only come in a place run by masters of an ethnic cuisine.
When a place is known for churning out home cooked Cambodian food, it's only appropriate to try the salar ka-kol (also known as "samlor kako"--hey, phoentic translations are never perfect), a bitter-greens stew that is essentially the national dish. Every family has their own specific way of making it, but it is always a kitchen-sink style concoction (it's other Khmer name means "Soup of 100 ingredients") with toasted rice grounds, chunks of mini-eggplant and bright-orange winter squash.
At Crystal, the somlar kako is as green as a superfood smoothie and, like most Cambodian dishes that contain the ever-present fish paste prohok, tastes a lot better than it smells. Bitter greens, stem and all, take up the majority of the soup, sloshing around like seaweed noodles along with strips of translucent green papaya in a hearty broth that makes meat a secondary thought. But get it with the pork short ribs anyway because you can always fork out the tender bite-sized morsels and dip it in the spicy pepper fish sauce before chewing it to the bone.
Another home-style favorite is the bahn cholw (also found as "baign chow" and "num bain chow"), a massive portion of two pancakes folded in half over a mixture of ground pork and bean sprouts. As with many other Khmer dishes, this one comes with an overflowing plate of cool greens that you can pile up with the main dish to make crunchy lettuce wraps.
Bain chow: We swear it's not an omelete
The technique is such: Grab a piece of lettuce with the widest wingspan, layer it with cucumber, Thai basil and mint leaves, scoop up some of the yellow pastry (don't mind the consistency; there is no egg in this omelet-looking flapjack) and wrap it like a protein-style burrito. Once you have a DIY spring roll, dip it in the bowl of tuk trey--a catchall sweet fish sauce made with sugar water that comes topped with floating peanut grounds--and eat it quickly before the thin liquid drips all over your shirt.
And if sporadic trips for Cambodian soul food are aren't enough to satisfy those prohok and curry cravings, Crystal also has a monthly membership package that for $100 (or whatever deal you can strike with the owner) allows you one meal a day. It's a great deal for homesick Cambodians and an even better deal for newbies trying to eat all 100-plus things on the menu.
Crystal Thai Cambodian Cuisine, 1165 E 10th St, Long Beach, (562) 591-7636
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