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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 7, 2004

Eateries offer flavors of Cambodia, the Islands

For our monthly roundup of inexpensive eateries, I'm showcasing two: one relatively new place with a Cambodian twist, and a longtime local-style hole in the wall featuring familiar fare.

Chez Sovan Express
Restaurant Row
500 Ala Moana
10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays

Cook Lan Che stir-fries a meal at Chez Sovan Express, where the dishes display well-rounded flavors without the fiery spices of some Thai dishes.

Chez Sovan Express at Restaurant Row specializes in Cambodian cuisine, which is similar to a blend of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Laotian.

Photos by Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

If you travel to Cambodia, people inevitably will ask if you've tried prohoc, a favorite Cambodian food they (correctly) think us foreigners wouldn't possibly want to experience. Prohoc is made from rotten fish, left to ripen and ferment and then mashed into a paste, most often eaten with rice.

It is definitely an acquired taste, light years beyond cilantro, Marmite or natto, three foods often associated with a less-than-love-at-first-bite relationship. What I find especially interesting is that Cambodians call cheese prohoc barang (French prohoc), equating the flavor of aged cheese with something that's familiar to them.

Fortunately, at Chez Sovan Express, they will not ask you about, offer or add any prohoc to your food. As a matter of fact, most of the ingredients they use are common to our day-to-day menus. Cambodian food actually is quite similar to a blend of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Laotian.

The seasonings Cambodians like to use include coconut milk, hot peppers, lemon grass, ginger and mint. The dishes display well-rounded flavors but without the fiery taste-bud bombs we're accustomed to with many Southeast Asian foods. If there were one overriding aspect to Cambodian cuisine, it would be the heavy reliance on sweetness. Fortunately for them, Americans love sugary things.

I can heartily recommend the sach ang ($1.99 each) — big, bold and barbecued meat sticks, similar to what we call satay at Thai restaurants.

Fresh chicken salad (nuom moin, $5.99) is a blend of chicken, shredded cabbage, carrots, bell peppers, sweet basil leaves, vermicelli rice noodles and peanuts. It's a hearty portion of crisp, crunchy and cool.

Ka ree moin (chicken curry — $2.99 for small, $5 for large) is a creamy affair, with potatoes and carrots. Kor tiv cha (fried noodles — $2.99 and $5.99) are a wok-fried version of rice noodles (similar to the Thai version) with chicken, bean sprouts and crushed peanuts.

I especially enjoyed the ginger chicken (cha knhei moin — $3.99 and $5.99), which displayed balanced flavors and a yin-yang of heat, sweet and salty. Another good choice is the char trop tofu (stir-fried eggplant, $2.99 and $5.99), a dish of succulent eggplant and chewy tofu.

Sovan's signature dish is amok ($5.99 each), a steamed-in-a-banana-leaf treat of fish, lemongrass, ginger, shallot, egg and collard greens. It was moist and quite rich. It looks and feels like salmon (in the mouth), but is really a white-fleshed fish colored with paprika. This is a deliciously unusual combination of flavors.

Chez Sovan Express is certainly worth a visit, especially for anyone looking for something other than the norm. There's casual seating both inside and out, and the staff is helpful and friendly.

• • •

Ray's Café
2033 N. King St.
7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, until 3 p.m. Sundays

Ray's Café in Kalihi serves lobster omelets ($8.45) made with four eggs and green onions, with rice and toast on the side. That alone makes the place worthy of a closer look.

Inside is a busy, buzzy kind of place, with a man-woman team behind the counter who seem to be perpetually set on overwhelm mode. When they finally get your food to you, it can be quite an enjoyable spread.

Although breakfast offers the standards, such as French toast ($2.95), hotcakes ($2.90), eggs with breakfast meats ($3.95), and such, I like their less-usual offerings better. Steak and fried oysters ($8.45) was good; the oysters lightly breaded and deep-fried, bursting with juices when bitten into.

Grilled pork chops ($6) were two very big chops, enough for two meals, and the fresh grilled mahi ($5.95) was a serious hunk of fish.

They definitely like their steaks here; filet mignon ($9.75), T-bone ($9.25), rib-eye ($8.70), and so on, all grilled. Don't bother asking for rare, medium or otherwise. You'll end up getting it one way — cooked.

The combo plate lunch ($5) is a great deal, with mahi, fried shrimp and teriyaki beef, rice and macaroni (or mixed green) salad.

Before you leave, try the banana lumpia ($1 for three pieces) and a hot chocolate (75 cents) to put a sweet exclamation point onto your meal.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com.