Weary palates crave surprises. So when vibrantly flavored dishes of a long-overlooked cuisine arrive on the table, even the most jaded eaters take notice.
Cambodian fare has long stood in the shadow of its popular Thai and Vietnamese neighbors. It is cuisine you may have never met.
A cozy restaurant just blocks from Revere Beach is happily making introductions. Thmor Da occupies the storefront once filled by the Cambodian eatery Floating Rock. The sign above the door has lost much of its paint, a casualty of New England weather. Potted plants and Buddhist statues crowd the window. Inside, the cheerful dining area is full of Cambodian families from the neighborhood. Bunsreng Sok, who opened the restaurant in January 2011 with his wife, Seak Ly Kong, and mother-in-law, Tann Hour Kong, explains that Thmor Da means “a rock that can grow into a mountain.” It is also the name of a famous restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and the location of an uncle’s restaurant where Sok apprenticed.
On the night we visit, a smiling young server greets us as she ferries plates to tables. We begin with tiger tear with spicy sauce ($9.99), which is grilled beef atop sliced green and red bell peppers, red onion, fresh mint, and whole basil leaves. The salad is the epitome of freshness, with a tangy marinade of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and a touch of chili. Fine grains of toasted lemongrass lend aroma and texture. Thai-inspired green papaya salad ($7.50) is similarly dressed. Long shreds of the crunchy fruit arrive in a saucy tangle with chunks of not-quite-ripe tomato and crushed peanuts.
Special rice noodle soup ($6.50) calls to mind Vietnamese pho, but this pork and chicken stock is flavored with fried shallots. The soup noodles — topped with mini meatballs, sliced fish cake, and green onions — are popular with the early morning crowd that arrives when the restaurant opens.
If you’re tired of what often passes for pad Thai in this town, the Cambodian version ($7.50) will tempt you back. Thin rice noodles are quickly fried with sweet soy sauce and ground dried shrimp, garnished with sliced hard-cooked egg and cucumber.
Appetizer-size fried quail ($7.99) arrives as five dainty halves of poultry, each drumstick painstakingly frenched. The lean meat benefits from a simple dipping sauce of lemon juice and a heaping teaspoon of black pepper. My dining companion thinks it is the most unusual condiment on the table. Lemon juice also features prominently in Cambodian farmer’s fish sour soup ($9.99), in which tender chunks of tilapia and generous handfuls of Chinese watercress float in pork stock enriched with prahok (Cambodia’s fermented fish paste).
Prahok is also a key ingredient in curried pickled fish with coconut milk ($9.99), a silky dish made with ground pork and slivered bell peppers. We scoop the warm curry with cool crudites of raw cabbage and miniature green eggplant before spooning it over rice.
While the rice (like the tea) could be hotter, we’re grateful for those starchy grains as we tuck into spicy chili chicken ($9.99), finely minced meat studded with red Thai bird chilies. My companion takes one bite and her eyes water. For a few minutes she cannot speak through the searing heat. But she keeps serving herself more, gesturing that it’s so good.