Taste of Angkor
Sacramento, CA 95823
In the 1970s, a communist regime attempted to wipe out Cambodian culture. Books were burned, temples destroyed and artists executed. But, thanks in part to refugees who fled the country, the cuisine survived.
Mora Som grew up in a refugee household, nourished by her mom’s Cambodian cooking. The flavor is characterized by kroeung, a blend of lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal, turmeric, garlic, shallots and chilies pounded into a paste.
After Som graduated from UC Davis, she visited Cambodia for the first time. She took cooking classes, learned about Cambodian ingredients and practiced traditional recipes. The experience compelled her to ignore her psychology degree and launch one of the few Sacramento restaurants that serve Cambodian fare. Taste of Angkor opened its doors just shy of one year ago.
The menu offers a mix of other Southeast Asian dishes—Lao, Thai, Mien and Vietnamese—and traditional Cambodian offerings. Recipes all come from Som’s mom or friends’ moms. That means they may differ from what you found in restaurants on vacation in Cambodia or Laos, but that doesn’t mean they’re not legit.
Take the amok trey ($12.95). Order it in Cambodia and you’ll likely get a delicate piece of catfish coated with kroeung and coconut milk, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. Taste of Angkor’s version is decidedly more homey and comforting, with the same flavors swimming in a bowl instead. It’s also an easy entry-level dish, for anyone hesitant about trying a brand-new cuisine.
On the flip side, only adventurous eaters should order anything with prahok, Cambodian fermented fish paste. But if you do, you’ll be rewarded with prahok ktiss ($11.95): ground chicken simmered with prahok, coconut milk, peanuts, kroeung and green peppercorns, served with a medley of raw vegetables. Essentially, it’s meat dip. Amazing, craveable meat dip that’s funky, tangy and slightly spicy. I have never tasted anything quite like it.
Prahok appears again in an herby, pungent dipping sauce for grilled steak in sach koh tuk prahok ($10.95). My medium-rare steak unfortunately arrived medium-well, thinly sliced and dried out. No delicious sauce could save it. Cambodian specialty sach koh lok lak ($9.95) proved a bit disappointing as well. Thin slices of beef are doused in a sweet soy sauce and served salad-style. It lacked any depth of flavor, and the side of lime-pepper sauce overpowered with sourness.
Taste of Angkor’s non-Cambodian dishes are far from throwaways, though. The soups, in particular, are impressive and well-priced. The Lao soup kapoon ($6.75-$7.95) is fantastic, with thick rice noodles, generous shreds of chicken, quail eggs and a fragrant coconut broth. It shines with a gorgeous and potent veneer of red curry. The beef curry soup ($9.95) is a prime, cozy winter option, with a deeply savory flavor similar to Japanese curry, tender chunks of beef and peanuts for crunch. You can and should order it with baguette, per the Vietnamese. Then there’s the Mien noodle dish, mee ka thang ($8.25), which also happens to be one of the few things you can request as vegetarian on the menu. Luckily, it’s tasty: fresh, wide rice noodles with sweet soy sauce-flavored gravy, crisp veggies and a fried egg on top.
One dish that’s caused an uproar is the Cambodian pho ($6.75-$7.95), because pho is not Cambodian. Som said Cambodian customers have told her the name alone is “disgraceful,” and surely some Vietnamese would scoff at its combo of oxtail broth, beef, tripe and shrimp. But the preparation is clean, nuanced and satisfying. We could debate issues of cultural appropriation forever, or we could appreciate that these are family recipes, family history and a mere taste of a nearly destroyed part of the world.