26 Lincoln St., Lowell
Open daily, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
All major credit cards accepted
Living in Lowell, the question often arises: “Where should I go for Cambodian food?’’ Until now I’ve not had a surefire answer. The city is awash in Southeast Asian restaurants that lump Cambodian cuisine with Vietnamese, Thai, and Laotian. A true Cambodian restaurant that doesn’t serve pad Thai or pho takes some sleuthing.
On a tip from a gallery owner, I visited Simply Khmer and found my answer. Flavorful soup, perfectly wrapped nam chow, endless pots of jasmine tea, and the savory, sweet and sour essence of this faraway land come into play with each freshly prepared dish. It’s been a while since a meal was this invigorating.
Tucked away on Lincoln Street, between downtown and the Highlands neighborhood, Simply Khmer is not suffering from its off-the-grid location.
We walked in at 6:30 p.m. on a Saturday and the 80-seat restaurant was teeming with Cambodian families, college students, and a few non-Asian couples in the know. Despite the scene, the service did not lag. Nothing was forgotten, and by the time our check arrived we were amazed that the quality did not ebb amid the din.
As a Vietnamese pho fan from way back, I found the Khmer soup called som-law ($10 to $19) to be a welcome diversion from the trusty onion and scallion-infused noodle broth that’s carried me through many New England winters.
S’gao jrourk trey (or SM2 on the menu) was outstanding. Filled with the bold tastes of Cambodia - lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, jalapeno, fresh lime juice, basil and cilantro - it was a revelation in a bowl. Studded with chunks of tilapia, still in its skin with a few bones here and there, the soup takes some work.
Because “no food is bizarre in Cambodia,’’ owner Denise Ban said, regulars don’t bat an eye at these oddities. Extreme eaters would be psyched to find pig intestines on the menu here. That’s the dish that attracted Travel Channel star Andrew Zimmern, host of “Bizarre Foods America,’’ to Simply Khmer this summer. The show airs Feb. 13.
At the other end of the spectrum is ma-ju yuon. This sweet soup with chicken, lotus root, pineapple, tomatoes, furry squash, tamarind, basil, ma’om, and fried garlic was a fine second, but not as clean and bright as the SM2. Both are heaping bowls ($10) that we could not finish.
As suggested, we opted for a large order of white rice to augment the soup. I discovered later that Cambodian diners order several soups and dishes to share during the evening.
The zesty mélange of star anise, lemongrass, and lime recalled my first trip to the original Elephant Walk in Somerville in the 1990s. The dynamic flavors that were so exotic then continue to thrill decades later. But the price at Simply Khmer is more affordable than the acclaimed Elephant Walk restaurants serving French and Cambodian fare, now located in Boston, Cambridge, and Waltham.
The ambience at Simply Khmer, however, cannot compete with the big-city chain. Its mustard and eggplant walls are devoid of all adornments, except a few flat-screen TVs playing CNN during the day and Cambodian cooking footage at night. A bit stark.
Ban, who owned the long-shuttered Angkor Kingdom on Merrimack Street, assures me that the décor is a work in progress. “At Angkor Kingdom I focused on the art; here I am focused on food,’’ she said.
That was evident when nam chow, Cambodian spring rolls ($3.50), arrived. The rice paper torpedoes, stuffed with ground chicken, lettuce, cucumber, shrimp, bean sprouts, and cilantro and served with a roasted peanut sauce, are tastier than the dozens I’ve consumed in the region through the years. Ban tells me chicken, not ground pork, makes the difference. These wraps are rolled moments before you pop them in your mouth. Terrific.
Suitable for sharing by three or four people, yao hon soup ($45), a.k.a. hot pot, is a new option at Simply Khmer that is gaining steam. As winter progresses, gathering around a bubbling pot of coconut, peanut, and curry soup that you use to cook seafood, meatballs, noodles, and corn on the spot is a comforting and more healthful break from Swiss fondue.
Besides the wallet-friendly menu, the BYOB policy here is another reason to cheer. We saw a couple enjoy a bottle of wine, and upon inquiry learned there is no corkage fee. “We only ask you take with you what you brought in,’’ said Ban.
Now, what kind of wine goes with furry squash?