Angkor Cambodian Bistro
Some restaurants do more than just serve food to its customers in a pleasing environment. What can this “more” mean? In the case of the Angkor Cambodian Bistro, it means exposing a city to the cuisine of an entire country. For while Thailand, China, and Japan are well-represented in the New York City culinary landscape, Cambodian food remains largely unknown to New Yorkers. Yet Minh Truong, the chef, and his wife Mandy are determined to change that, one baked amok at a time.
“People need some education on Cambodian food,” Mandy said. She finds that the best way to describe Cambodian cuisine is to compare it with its Thai neighbor, with whom it shares many culinary elements. While Thai food is “spicy and sour,” Cambodian is usually sweeter, lighter, and more vegetable-based. Two Manhattan Sideways staff members were given the chance to try this succulent description out with one of Cambodia’s staple dishes, the baked amok, a paella-type combination of fish, prawns, scallops, and lemongrass wrapped in banana leaf and slightly punctured by red curry sauce, served with rice and steamed vegetables. They found it an incredibly balanced dish between spice and sweetness with a unique taste and seductive, creamy texture.
As interesting as the dish was, hearing the story of Minh and Mandy was even more alluring. Minh, a native Cambodian with Chinese roots, left Cambodia with his family in 1975 for Vietnam when he was a teenager. After working for three years on jobs like bicycle repair, he went to Thailand where he lived in a refugee camp. There he started his culinary career working for no pay as a cook at a local restaurant. In homage to this experience, the first restaurant he opened in New York City was Thai. It was around that time that he met Mandy, a native from Guangzhou, at a family dinner. Together they operated the Royal Siam in Chelsea with great success for over twenty years.
It was during a trip to Cambodia in 2012 – the first time Minh returned to the country – that the idea for the Angkor came to fruition. Mandy recalls how both were disappointed at the number of Cambodian restaurants that prioritized American and other international foods to better serve the taste of the tourist population. “The first two pages of their menu is Cambodian, the rest is sandwich, burger, pizza…” As a result of this encounter, they sold the Royal Siam and opened the Angkor on New Year’s Eve, 2016, to try to elevate Cambodian cuisine to its deserved high step on the culinary ladder.
The restaurant’s warm and inviting décor includes wooden crafts from India, cushions from Japan, paintings of Cambodian temples deep in the jungle, and elaborate embroideries of elephants and long-lobbed Buddhas. Mandy wants her customers to leave Angkor with not only a full belly, but an appreciation for the Cambodian experience as a whole. “The food is not just food”, she says, “there’s some history, some culture, behind the it.”