I originally wrote this piece for the LA WEEKLY in July, 2015. There were a few editorial changes made that I did not agree with. First of all, Golden Lake Eatery is not the only Khmer restaurant in Chinatown. At the time, there were at least two others. New Kamara is still open. The menu and prices have since changed, so has Chinatown. Andy Ricker has since shutterd both of his Pok Pok restaurants.
Furthermore, I don’t really believe that Cambodian cuisine will gain the same traction in America has Vietnamese or Thai cuisines. There are a handleful of Vietnamese-American food writers who champion their cuisine. There are almost no Khmer-American food writers. There is a delightful Facebook page called “Mom’s Cambodian Recipes” or “Mom’s Khmer Recipes”. The Thai government spends money promoting L.A.’s Thaitown and Thai restaurants as a way of encourgaing tourism. The Cambodian government, still struggling, offers no support for Long Beach’s Cambodia Town. All this is to say that I do not believe cuisines become well known because of their relative merits. They need their champions (food writers) and marketing support.
The San Gabriel Valley tends to get a lot more ink than Chinatown in food news sections. Chinatown is older, Cantonese, and specifically founded for tourists. Although, the low priced eateries serve a critical role in serving low-income neighborhood residents. The much newer, more middle-class Chinese enclaves in the San Gabriel Valley tend to be populated by Mandarin speakers. The current crop of Chinese-American food writers are more likely to come from Mandarin speaking backgrounds.
China is a huge country and the diaspora is spread out all over Asia and the world. As a writer, food historian, and researcher I prefer to focus on lesser known narratives. I like to search in between nooks and crannies to find people who are often invisibilized or marginalized.
Golden Lake Eatery, 424 W. College St., Chinatown; (213) 509-4035. Locating in the same strip as Ai Hoa Supermarket. Free parking with validation.
Recommended dishes: Lok lok beef, pepper shrimp, taro or leek cakes (ask for them fried), Hainan chicken, fried pork chop, banh mi sandwiches, and summer rolls.
In the 1970s Cambodian refugees, who arrived at Camp Pendleton, began settling in Long Beach and quickly built a community base for themselves. By contrast, L.A.’s Cambodian population is relatively small. Chinatown has about 600 Cambodian residents, which was enough to convince Johnny Yee, who also owns a nearby donut shop, to open a Cambodian restaurant last October. As the first Cambodian restaurant in the City of L.A., the cuisine remains massively underrepresented on this side of the county, but with other under-appreciated Asian cuisines starting to get recognition, it’s only a matter of time before Cambodian food gets its spotlight too. While we wait, Yee’s Golden Lake Eatery is a stellar entry way into one of Southeast Asia’s culinary stars.
At first glance, Golden Lake Eatery doesn’t seem different from the handful of Vietnamese restaurants that have occupied the Chinatown location for the past 20 years. The layout is the same as it has always been, except for a few more tables and chairs; and a counter where steam tables used to be. $2.50 rice paper and rice noodle snacks, that are ubiquitous to casual Vietnamese eateries, crowd the register stand. There’s a paper menu with about half a dozen banh mi sandwiches that aren’t called by their Cambodian name, nam pang. While the sandwiches here are indiscernible from their Viet cousins, they are delicious and as good as the best places in the San Gabriel Valley. Priced at $3, they are cheap too. But the real specialties of the house are inside an album like menu with a thick cover and photos of almost all the dishes.
The menu is ambitiously large and varied for such a tiny kitchen. The appetizers, soups, noodles and stir-fried dishes appear to be the same mash-up of languages spoken by the staff: Cambodian, Vietnamese and a little Chinese. However, the heart and soul of the food is Khmer.
The Khmer people have lived in Southeast Asia for thousands of years, before modern national borders were created, and their cuisine has influenced and been influenced by neighboring countries including Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. Chinese culinary influence is found throughout the region, as are bread and sandwiches from French Indochina. The menu isn’t a melange of Southeast Asian cuisines, per se. It’s representative of Cambodian cuisine and the Khmer diaspora.
Almost all the dishes are priced between $2.50 and $7. Start with some taro cakes stuffed with little cubes of taro and minced pork, encased in a rice-flour dough; don’t forget to ask for them fried. The beef knuckle soup, served with soup noodles or a side of dry noodles seasoned with shallots and thin slices of beef, has the clarity of a great French stock, with added depth from mushroom soy sauce and charred onions. It’s like drinking the essence of meat and bones.
Phnom Penh noodles, named after Cambodia’s capital, could perhaps be considered a signature item. It’s a dry noodle dish gilded with layers of shrimp, sliced pork, fried shallots, garlic and herbs, served with a small bowl of broth and a handful of bean sprouts. The lok lak beef (shaking beef) is served with sticky rice and a classic Khmer dipping sauce made with lime juice, fish sauce and so much ground black pepper that it thickens the sauce. Surprisingly, it’s more elegant and refreshing than it is bracing; a perfect foil for the lightly caramelized beef and side salad of greens and cucumbers.
Black pepper shrimp should be ordered whole with the skin and heads on. The aroma of wok-seared shellfish should hit your nose first, followed by smokey spices and hot green chilis. Suck out the brains from the shrimp heads and lick your fingers between bites of shrimp meat.
They do vegetables well, too. The baby gai lan is perfectly cooked, tender with a little snap and doused with a garlicky oyster sauce. Ten people could easily feast here for about $10 per person.
Throughout the meal, you will sense Golden Lake Eatery’s spirit of generosity with seasonings and with portion sizes. If you’re wondering how they keep their prices so low, it’s worth pointing out that commercial rents can still be dirt cheap in Chinatown, despite the recent arrival of such notable chefs as Roy Choi and Andy Ricker.