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Hot in the City 

The new Phnom Penh spices up West 25th.

New to the neighborhood: Spring roll, banh sougnh, and pad thai. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • New to the neighborhood: Spring roll, banh sougnh, and pad thai.
We've come a long way since the days when "neighborhood restaurant" meant a deli, diner, or Denny's. Today's options include everything from that Puerto Rican place to the Greek joint down the street. And now, to the list of comfy, casual neighborhood spots we can add the new Phnom Penh, settled along a short stretch of Ohio City sidewalk that already constitutes one of the region's most interesting "eats streets."

Of course, the original Phnom Penh (13124 Lorain Avenue) has been dishing up an enticing blend of Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Thai cuisine for years, first under founder Keo Mang and, since 2000, under the guidance of owner Mono Bun; this hasn't changed with the addition of a second location. But where the Lorain Avenue spot is small and plain, the new outpost, open since March 11, is convenient and striking, designed to make the most of its narrow, vintage space and the handsome art and artifacts Bun has imported from his native Cambodia. Among them, a series of seven mammoth, intricate carvings on the walls illustrate themes from Cambodian literature or faith, and each is so arresting that we almost forgot we were sitting in a restaurant, not a gallery.

Turns out, this wasn't such a bad thing: It helped us while away the 15 minutes that passed before a server showed up. The place was busy, but we watched in a mix of amusement and frustration as two staffers wandered the aisles apparently at random -- fetching water for one table when they could have easily served two, and doing their best to ignore incoming customers' muted pleas for attention.

Fortunately, service was considerably more prompt during a second visit. But on both trips, pacing proved unpredictable, with starters showing up after the entrées had been served and a companion's main course reaching the table a good 10 minutes before mine did.

The other factor that may continue to muck up the works is the amount of time it takes to talk patrons through the whopper of a menu. Allowing for all the subtle variations in each dish, it must contain nearly 200 options, ranging from salads and soups to noodle dishes, rice plates, and stews, typically offered in carnivorous and vegetarian guises. Not only are the sheer possibilities potentially paralyzing, the descriptions could scarcely be less illuminating -- although the unintentional typos and misspellings can be amusing. Take the taprom write-up: "Sweet and sour pan for Cambodia, served with fresh mushrooms, inions scallions, Napa and red or green paper in a light sauce of lemon grass, tamarind with choice of 1. (Vegetables or Chicken); 2. Beef; 3. Shrimps; 4. Seafood of scallops, srimps, squid and crap; 5.combination of Chicken beef and shrimps." (We were tempted by the inions, but passed on the crap.)

In the face of so much abundance -- and perplexity -- the only reasonable approach is to just dive in; besides, when most dishes are priced at less than $14, it's hard to go far wrong. Sometimes, that might mean sticking to old favorites, like spring rolls and pad thai (the kitchen turns out exemplary versions of each). Other times, it may lead to exotic adventures like our current passion, banh sougnh: a fragrant tangle of rice noodles tossed with bean sprouts, whipped coconut milk, and finely shredded lettuce, cucumbers, and scallions, and topped with chopped spring rolls, Asian basil, ground peanuts, and lemongrass, with a little bowl of sweet-tart sauce served on the side for balance.

Another new discovery is Salad Phnom Penh, a giant portion of neatly julienned chicken breast, cabbage, carrots, basil, and green pepper, in a clear, fruity dressing offering harmonic overtones of garlic, sugar, and vinegar. Not only are the complementary flavors in perfect balance, but the textures are an endearing interplay of tender-crisp and crunchy-soft; the upshot is a lesson in how simple ingredients, insightfully combined, can yield a dish of surpassing complexity.

Other tried-and-true options include the traditional Cambodian stir-fry (chha kreoung), with its aromatic confluence of lime leaves, garlic, turmeric root, galanga root, and lemongrass tossed with tender-crisp veggies and a choice of meats; and Vietnamese-style beef-and-noodle soup (pho dac biet), with plenty of tender, lean brisket.

When it comes to fiery flavors, Southeast Asians generally go for the burn; most non-natives will be happiest ordering their dishes "mild" or "medium," leaving the "hot" versions to professional fire-eaters. And another important bit of advice: Bring cash. The restaurant doesn't accept credit cards or checks.

For dessert, consider a blended smoothie in flavors like pineapple, jackfruit, or guanabana, a tropical fruit with mild pineapple overtones. Strong coffee, mixed with sweetened condensed milk, is another traditional measure to bring a meal to a satisfying close.

Afterward, if you're lucky, it's just a short walk home. So what if your property hasn't appreciated? With additions like Phnom Penh, the neighborhood is definitely looking up.

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