LOWELL — Simply Khmer restaurant is on the scruffier side of the Spaghettiville Bridge in a neighborhood edged with cracked sidewalks and weed-tufted pavement. This is not the downtown Lowell of converted mills and cobblestone streets. It is a land of overpasses and alleys, of auto-body shops and vacant lots. But here on Lincoln Street, Sam Eang Lee and his wife, Denise Ban, oversee the Cambodian restaurant equivalent of Cheers.
The pair snagged this place on the cheap in 2008. It’s what my own Irish-Catholic ancestors did when they moved around the block a century ago, around the time of the Spanish Flu. My great-grandfather was a milkman for Hood. My grandfather and his seven siblings grew up on West London Street, where my Aunt Dot lived until she died. He and three of his brothers served in World War II, and they returned home to raise their own families within the same 1-mile radius: marrying at the Sacred Heart Church, sending their kids to the Sacred Heart School. That generation is gone now. So is the school; so is the church.
I don’t know who lives in their houses anymore, but I still know the streets. And 100 years later, Lee is staking his hopes on the same block.
“I wake up and think every day: I can’t believe I’m here,” he says. He was born in Cambodia in 1969; by 1974, Lee and his parents, brother, and sister had planned to pack up to flee the Khmer Rouge, walking for days through the woods to a refugee camp on the edge of Thailand. His father, Lee Eang, was killed during that desperate time for plotting the escape. His brother starved to death. Like so many others, Lee ultimately came to Lowell as a teenager to build a new life. The city, with its long history as an immigrant destination, was one of the places designated by the Office of Refugee Settlement for Cambodians given asylum.
Ban is also a refugee. The pair met as young adults when Lee’s mother, a wedding planner, helped to organize Ban’s sister’s nuptials.
“I was afraid of girls. I’d never talked to girls before, so I wrote her poems and love songs. And I guess she fell for it,” Lee says with a laugh.
The pair found success with Simply Khmer after operating a flashier downtown restaurant, Angkor Kingdom, with a bigger bar scene. This restaurant is compact and sleek, with glossy menus and a separate area for product displays. Andrew Zimmern visited in 2011 for his TV show “Bizarre Foods,” which put it on the national map. In the COVID-19 era, their website features photos of servers getting their temperatures taken, as well as a merchandise section with fish sauces and branded face masks.
Son Xavier Eang Lee, 24, moved home from New York City in 2019 to offer extra support. His marketing savvy and creation of an online ordering system (plus an on-point Instagram presence) has helped his parents reach a new generation of customers. He never planned it this way when studying at Hofstra University, but now he hopes to take over the business.
“I love it, even though it’s taken me a minute to admit it to myself. It was intense for me. At first, I thought: I’m going to move to the city, enjoy my life, and try to do all these things. But the only person looking out for me and my family is myself,” he says.
He wants to promote a line of Cambodian sauces and frozen foods to an audience far beyond Lowell. He also wants to pivot to a quick-service food model, perhaps more marketable during a pandemic and beyond.
“I want to be here for the Cambodian people, and the new waves of Portuguese and Central Americans and African-Americans and Indians who enjoy our food. I hear horror story after horror story, but they have been here for us,” he says.
His father trained him well at the wok, he says, but also instilled a zeal for customer service — something that he says accounts for the restaurant’s wide appeal.
“My father would always say: ‘You can be a good cook, but are you a good cleaner?’” Xavier says. The restaurant is immaculate, especially now, with signs about masks and reminders to stay 6 feet apart. The family has added a patio with spacious picnic tables and plants.
There, friends gather over sticky-sweet chicken wings and fragrant kuy-tiew, or noodle soup. Martin Huq flags me down to sing the restaurant’s praises from a corner bench.
“I’m taking care of my elderly mom, and I feel like they keep things clean and safe,” he says. “I’m here once or twice a week.“
One table over, pals Vanna Howard and Vannak Theng catch up on city news.
“We come here to have something to remind you of home: the smell of fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs,” says Howard, a refugee from Cambodia who moved to Lowell from Revere in 1991. Now she’s a candidate for state representative from the 17th Middlesex District.
They’re eating nom bahn chok, the restaurant’s signature soup. It’s a gustatory kaleidoscope of lemongrass, kaffir lime, fermented fish, and garlic with vermicelli served in a glassy broth, tinted greenish from turmeric. It is electric and cleansing, like drinking herbaceous sunlight.
Food is Lee’s bridge between past and future, the one language he could always speak.
“I started school in eighth grade. I couldn’t count. I would fall asleep, head on my desk,” he recalls. “I found one person from Cambodia who had been here longer than me and spoke English. The teacher let us sit next to each other. Whatever the teacher said, he’d translate,” he recalls.
He continued on to vocational school and found work in auto body shops and as a landscaper, but he longed to cook. Ban, meanwhile, was a self-proclaimed “teacher’s pet” and a checkers champion. She went on to work in accounting.
“I skipped a few grades,” she says. “I think that gave me the advantage over the people who were making fun of me. After that, they didn’t make fun of me. They wanted to be my friend.”
When Lee said he wanted to cook again after his first restaurant closed, Ban was confident they had the money for the modest Lincoln Street storefront. Rent was just $1,200. They took a chance, and for years, Simply Khmer was a success.
“It was the perfect balance between being a community restaurant where the Khmer community liked to go, but it also had certain elements that a non-Cambodian would feel comfortable in,” says George Chigas, an associate teaching professor of Cambodian language and culture at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His wife came to Lowell as a Cambodian refugee.
The restaurant’s fortunes matched Lowell’s own: The mill city has always been a haven for immigrants like my own family a century ago, and it was on the upswing after years of tumult. But until the late 1990s, Chigas says, race relations were tense.
“In the 1980s, the population was very new, coming from refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. Many hadn’t been outside of that world, and it was a violent world. Things were settled with guns and knives,” Chigas says.
Chigas identifies a turning point in 1999, when Lowell was named an All-America City by the National Civic League, a designation he attributes to the city’s strong Cambodian culture. The same year, Chanrithy Uong was elected to the Lowell City Council. He was the first Cambodian-American elected to a council post nationwide.
“Cambodia drove Lowell’s new cultural economy. Cambodian culture was a real asset,” Chigas says. Simply Khmer was able to capitalize on that.
“The city has dramatically changed from the ‘80s. It’s grown,” Ban says. “It’s a melting pot. It’s where the [Southeast Asian] Water Festival is happening. Nobody has water festivals in the US except Lowell. It’s a big deal.”
Just the same, the family relocated from Lowell to Harvard for the schools when Xavier was growing up, and he says it was difficult to convince friends to visit his old hometown. On the other hand, the family has been criticized for catering to a Western audience by having an English-language menu, selling products, and focusing on explaining dishes to new guests instead of keeping their heads down and cooking.
“But I don’t want people to feel intimidated,” Xavier says. “I grew up with Caucasian people, and getting them to come to my restaurant was hard. Then I [also] heard, ‘Are you only trying to cater to lighter skin?’ We get that a lot. I say to them: ‘We are here because ... we love what we do and want to share it with a wider audience,” he says.
COVID-19 changed the family’s outlook. They scrapped dine-in service, which comprised 75 percent of their business; now, they rely on takeout. Ban received several loans, and she’s working on securing more funds, including a grant from the city.
“I have backed-up bills that I have to clear up from rent to electricity to everything else. My head is still in the water ... but I’m still breathing,” she says.
The Durkin Bridge is a block away from the restaurant. It’s named for my Irish-Catholic family on West London Street. I stood on this block in 2016 when Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito christened the sign and praised my grandfather’s family for their legacy, with those four brothers who served in World War II at once. They and their other siblings went on to modest, hard-working lives that encapsulated the postwar American dream: printers, milkmen, salesmen.
During the dedication, I thought about how much time had passed. My grandparents were dead, their church had closed, and new construction in various hues of beige had replaced my mom’s parochial school.
Now, contemplating my own fragrant bowl of nom bahn chok in the shadow of their bridge, I see a car pull up out front. The driver looks familiar. It’s my mom’s cousin, now a foreign language teacher at Lowell High School, ducking in for takeout. He greets Theng and Howard — they know one another, of course, because that’s how Lowell is.
“The city is growing. We’re hard-working folks. We know how to survive, given the situation we’re in, coming here, making a life for ourselves, bettering ourselves,” says Theng, who spent her early years at a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to the United States. She’s now a teacher at the Robinson School across the Merrimack River in Centralville.
We snap a group selfie in our masks: an improbable collection of relatives, strangers, and colleagues, meeting over soup in a familiar neighborhood.