Days before jetting off for Cambodia Town Film Festival meetings and to give inspiring human-rights speeches at Ivy League schools, last month's cover man praCh Ly was kind enough to spend an afternoon helping me find a new Cambodian lunch spot.
When he arrived to pick me up, praCh gave some culinary options ("You want an authentic hole-in-the-wall? Noodles? Thai-bodian?"). Since the rain had stopped long enough to let the sun peek its head out for a few hours (and I am horribly indecisive), we settled on the place with the best view.
La Lune Palace -- the latest restaurant and event space to emerge from the literal ashes of Atlantic Ave.'s much-loved La Lune, which burned down in 2011 -- is housed in the former Ristorante DaVinci location on the third floor of an airport adjacent office building.
Ordinarily, Cambodian restaurants are known as much for their beef lok lak and Phnom Penh noodle soup as for their opulent interiors and nighttime entertainment. But with Little La Lune on PCH and Cherry operating as the brand's new intimate cafe-style restaurant, the dual roles seem to be split and La Lune Palace -- who's high-ceiling main room and runway-overhanging patio seating have hosted fundraiser galas and wedding receptions alike -- is often forgotten as a daytime eatery.
After taking an elevator ride and entering the grandiose marble restaurant, we took our seats at a tableclothed two-top on the outdoor balcony, which features sweeping 180-degree views of the municipal airstrip. praCh took care of formalities, addressing the waitress in the beautiful Khmer language and ordering me a cup of the soup of the day.
After eliminating all of the Thai and Vietnamese-inspired options on the menu (rumor has it they make a mean Pad Thai Noodle), I settled on ordering a plate of the New York strip steak, served with traditional-style prohok sauce and tons of lush vegetables.
The soup -- a nameless chef creation -- arrived quickly. Filled with bits of cooked egg, tofu strips, julienned bamboo and mushroom, the soup had the flavor and consistency of a Chinese hot and sour soup minus the rent tint and plus the subdued spiciness.
I slurped it down quickly.
Similar to the "grilled beef and anchovie salad" item seen on many Cambodian restaurant menus, the "strip steak with prohok sauce" dish includes a thin cut of steak cooked medium (some pieces are pink and some cooked through) with a side dish of veggies and loads of fish flavor. But instead of the anchovie-laden pickled-olive-jalepeño-onion relish, however, the latter plate comes with a helping of various dry goods and a cup full of tirk prohok, a salad-dressing-type sauce made of garlic, lemongrass, and prohok -- the fermented fish paste used to up the umami noms in tons of Cambodian dishes.
Using the lettuce leaves as a wrapper, praCh showed me how to place the beef and bean sprouts into a makeshift carb-free taco and dip the whole thing into the prohok sauce. Just as the spiciness from the sauce's chili paste starts to kick in, he said, take a bite of either the cucumber or a slice of the mini globe squash to balance off the kick. The process of alternately sweating from the heat of fishy garlic sauce and killing the burn with the touch of a cool vegetable is one of the most interesting eating experiences I have ever had, made even more distinctive by the juxtaposing textures of crunchy greens and tender, spiced steak.
And don't let the tablecloths fool you--dining at La Lune is a deal. Between the $8.95 lunch specials and the expansive view of personal Cessnas hitting the runway, the Palace serves up gala-worthy Cambodian atmosphere at lunch-friendly prices; no tour guide necessary.
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La Lune Palace, 2801 E. Spring St., 3rd Floor, (562) 424-1464.