The day I ate Cambodian food for the first time also happened to be the day of White Center Spring Clean 2010. Volunteers wearing purple T-shirts spent a Saturday in May cleaning and beautifying the streets and public spaces in the transforming, unincorporated neighborhood on a hilltop south of downtown Seattle.
Part of neither Seattle nor Burien, the two cities that border it, White Center is the petri dish of our civic aspirations, a somewhat isolated, urban community plotted with the best intentions, the kind of place many who live in Seattle probably wish the city was like: still small enough to allow for the effort of the individual, but big enough to stand for something.
King County spent $15 million here over the last five years to repair storefronts, restore a park, install wireless Internet, build new sidewalks and a community center, and finance the construction of the Greenbridge project, a mixed-income housing complex that replaced distressed and dangerous public housing originally built to temporarily shelter Boeing workers.
Beset by poverty for decades, White Center was that invisible, avoided place, of interest to few with political or cultural power. As it often happens in places like White Center, immigrants to the city settled here: Somalis, Ethiopians, Mexicans, El Salvadorans, Vietnamese, Russians, and Cambodians. Block for block, it is undoubtedly one of the most diverse places in King County, and a great bet for eating.
The spiritual and cultural heart of the Seattle area’s Cambodian community is in White Center, one of many places across the country where Cambodian immigrants have landed since 1979, when the Khmer Rouge regime fell from power, the country’s genocide ended, and its refugees started settling in the U.S.
According to U.S. Census data, most Cambodian Americans live in California and Massachusetts, followed by Washington state. One of the few museums in the world devoted to the history of Cambodia’s “killing fields,” (referring to the genocide of 1 million to 2 million Cambodians following the end of the Vietnam War) started in White Center, although it has been temporarily relocated to the Wing Luke museum in Seattle's Chinatown.
None of this was on my mind the weekend afternoon I visited the Queen’s Deli, one of the few Cambodian restaurants in the Seattle area. I was preoccupied with the dearth of Cambodian dining options (despite the number of immigrants in the area), a curious circumstance given the number of Vietnamese and Thai restaurants in the city — Cambodia shares borders as well as plenty of cultural DNA with Thailand and Vietnam. Thai food in particular is so ubiquitous, it is nearly as emblematic of Seattle as salmon and teriyaki.
The Kirirom Restaurant & Bakery in Lynnwood recently closed, and a pho restaurant replaced it. That leaves the Phnom Penh Noodle House in Chinatown as the only other option around here, although Phnom Penh is more of a hybrid of Cambodian, Thai and Chinese.
Queen’s Deli has the distinction of being surrounded by other Cambodian businesses and being patronized mostly by Cambodian immigrants. A few blocks away, the largest grocery in the neighborhood, the Samway market, is owned by the Yim family, from Cambodia by way of Louisiana. The Queen’s Deli is owned by the Kruy family — husband Chengtay, wife Chamtong and their adult son Tola, 23, who grew up near Phnom Penh but attended high school in Kent and is now a student at Highline Community College. The Kruys opened Queen’s Deli less than two years ago.
Tola said the restaurant's name refers to his mom, who does all the cooking and runs the kitchen. "My parents wanted to give the restaurant a Cambodian name, but I didn't want to do that," he said. "I didn't want people to think the food was just for Cambodian people."
While tables are abundant, the restaurant is more of a takeout joint. Women come to buy bags of sweet rolls and other baked goods. Families order ahead for trays of fried noodles for birthday parties. Men grab sandwiches made with grilled pork and baguettes — Cambodia or Kampuchea (an older, more faithful English transliteration) was formerly a French protectorate — wrapped in butcher paper. The restaurant has plenty of pre-made food to go: hot-out-of-the-oil rice-flour donuts; colorful, gelatinous sweets; a Cambodian version of a hambao, stuffed with mushrooms, onions, and pork; and various noodles and sautéed dishes kept in hot trays behind the counter.
But for those with a little time, the most rewarding dishes are those made to order. Dishes are constructed from scratch and take some time in the small kitchen. The best among them are soups and stews that share hints of similarity with Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian food. Bright aromatics like ginger and lemongrass are part of the cuisine as are peppery herbs, rice noodles and curries. Cambodian food is less spicy and sweet than Thai food. But if the difference between Cambodian food and other Asian food can be reduced to one ingredient, it would be prahok.
Prahok is to Khmer cooking — Khmer also refers to the language of Cambodia and to its people — what fish sauce is to Thai cooking. It is fish paste, made from the gutted, scaled, salted, fermented remains of various freshwater fish. It is a pale, pinkish grey in color and possesses a pungent aroma that gives Khmer food a deep, earthy flavor. The flavors of the Thai food we consume locally seem elementary by comparison. Prahok is used in most Khmer dishes, as a base of flavor to build on.
The dishes at Queen’s Deli cost $7 or less. The menu contains some photographs that are of some help to those new to Cambodian food. Otherwise, a certain trust and sense of curiosity are the best guides. Friendly and helpful, Tola is also happy to explain the menu and inform your choices.
He is likely to suggest num banh chuk ($6), ribbons of thin rice noodles served in a pale-colored sauce, made with prahok, ground lemongrass and spices that impart a subtle, curry-like flavor. The sauce is soupy in consistency but dense with flavor. Mixed into the sauce is ground pork, chopped long beans, cucumbers, mint leaves, and bean sprouts.
Another idiosyncratic dish is samloh kako ($7), referred to on the menu as Cambodian ratatouille. The designation is a bit misleading, as the dish is more of a savory stew. It too possesses a pale, somewhat unappetizing, green-gray color thanks to the prahok. The flavor, however, does not disappoint. The dish is traditionally made with fish, but on Tola’s suggestion, I ordered it with pork rib on the bone. The stew contains bits of pumpkin, eggplant, and leafy herbs. Like the num banh chuk, it is not spicy, allowing you to take in and appreciate the depth of its flavors.
To oversimplify, Cambodian food is rustic compared to Thai food. The preparation is elegant but basic. Take the fried tilapia ($6), skin-on, deep-fried cross sections of fish tossed with onions sliced longitudinally with small slabs of ginger and whole, fermented beans. Served with plain rice, the dish is slightly sweet, mostly salty, and funky in the best possible way. You can imagine it cooked at home. That is the overall effect of the Queen’s Deli. It feels like a home kitchen, somewhere far away.
So much of White Center feels that way, a world apart from the city most of us know. With the streets now shiny and less threatening, the mainstream is finding its way here too. The Dubsea coffee shop in the Greenbridge development is a bright, airy hangout as sleek and cool as any in Capitol Hill. It serves Stumptown coffee beans, and baked goods from Macrina and Le Fournil. Full Tilt serves its gourmet ice cream here — it operates two other stores in Columbia City and the University District.
The beauty of White Center is that it contains, in equal parts, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Starting in June, the Kruys are proud to report, the Queen’s Deli will start serving Cambodian hot pot, which the owners found difficult to describe, saying only that it is not like any other kind of hot pot you have eaten, a claim I would bet on with confidence.
If you go: Queen’s Deli, 9808 14th Ave. S.W., Seattle, 206-767-8363. Open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
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