>Cambodian restaurateur, Thai wife serve up flavors of home

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The tranquil dining room of Angkor, situated in a suburban strip mall, offers respite from the outside world. J.C. Schisler/Tribune-Review
TRIBUNE-REVIEW THEATER CRITIC
Thursday, May 8, 2008

Food snobs generally greet with suspicion any restaurant that’s doing business in a suburban strip mall.
That’s their loss.
It means they will overlook the joys of Angkor, an attractive, well-run restaurant with an adventurous menu of Cambodian and Thai cuisine.
It’s been doing business since 2002 in a utilitarian strip mall that’s technically inside Pittsburgh where the city’s borders intersect with those of Greentree and Crafton.
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Angkor is a family business run by husband-and-wife team Bo and Nit Meng and Bo Meng’s mother, Kim Hong. They also own and operate two Downtown restaurants featuring the cuisine of Southeast Asia — Phnom Penh on First Avenue and Lemon Grass Cafe on Sixth Avenue.
Prettily decorated with carved wood panels and an abundance of small gilded Thai and Cambodian statuettes, the dining room offers a sense of place and an island of tranquility.
Tables are covered with white and green cloths and decorated with artificial sprigs of orchids. On one visit, Asian music played in the background; on another, the soundtrack was more Western and jazzy.
Bo Meng is a native of Cambodia and his wife, Nit, is from Thailand, so the menu offers selections from both those countries as well as some familiar Chinese entrees such as General Tso’s Chicken ($9.95 dinner, $6.50 lunch) or Chicken with Garlic Sauce ($8.95 dinner, $6.50 lunch).
You’ll also find familiar Thai and Cambodian menu items such as Pad Thai ($11.95) or Red or Green Chicken Curry ($8.95).
Fat and crunchy Fresh Spring Rolls (two for $4.95) are packed full of fresh lettuce and bean sprouts and bits of mint and licorice-accented Thai basil. You can choose from fillings of chicken, shrimp or tofu. Alternately, the obliging staff will happily honor requests for different fillings in each of the pair.
We also enjoyed the Lemon Grass Skewers (two for $2.95) that are available with either grilled beef or chicken, glazed with a light but sticky sauce and served with a small pile of crisp, matchstick-sized pickled vegetables.
But the restaurant’s menu also offers attractions for adventurous diners who want to explore Thai and Cambodian cuisine beyond the usual offerings.
We started with Angkor Healthy Soup ($3.50), based in chicken broth that’s been enhanced with a smoky, fishy taste and the citrusy tang of lemon grass. Also known as Khymer Soup, it’s filled with bits of spinach, zucchini, straw mushrooms and thin discs of taro root.
Thai and Cambodian cuisine is similar to Chinese food. There’s an emphasis on fresh, often uncooked or lightly cooked vegetables, and meat is used more like a condiment than a main ingredient.
Some entrees are fiery while others are mild.
But it’s the flavor accents that distinguish them — leaves of fresh mint and Thai basil, citrusy and bright lemon grass, peppery and ginger-like galangal, and lots and lots of coconut and coconut milk.
For our main courses, we opted for Ban Chhev ($8.95), a huge but thin yellow pancake wrapped loosely around a filling of ground chicken and small chunks of shrimp as well as bits of vegetables and roasted coconut. It’s a mild dish that you can dress up to your taste by adding bits of lettuce, cucumber, bean sprouts, basil and mint leaves that come on a side plate along with a sweet brown sauce.
Also on the mild side but very flavorful is Lot Chha ($8.95 to $11.95, depending on choice of protein). Translated as Cambodian Rice Pasta, it can be ordered with chicken, beef or shrimp.
We opted for the shrimp version, a sort of Cambodian comfort food, which contained more than a dozen nicely cooked shrimp stir-fried to combine egg, bean sprouts, green onions and Chinese broccoli with the short, fat cylinders of pressed rice.
If you prefer spicier options, you can opt for Moarn Chha Kreung, which is translated at Lemon Grass Sauce ($8.95 to $11.95, depending on choice of protein). A pleasant kick of fire blends satisfyingly with the sharp lemon accents of the sauce. The sauce ties together bits of chicken and an abundance of vegetables that include green onions, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and green peppers.
We also enjoyed the competing attractions of coconut, peanuts and star anise in Saramann ($12.95). Served with rice, as are most of the entrees that are not noodle dishes, Saramann has large, thin strips of beef and a generous handful of roasted peanuts submerged in a hearty, hot and peppery brown sauce.
Portions are large but not overwhelming.
That’s good, because it leaves room to try one of the half-dozen dessert selections.
If Jackfruit and Golden Threads are foreign to you, the staff will guide you through the options. Ordered singly, they range from $2.95 to $4.95.
If their descriptions make it difficult to choose between the options — and they will — you can order a sampler platter of any four items for $4.95.
We did that on one visit and particularly liked the Golden Threads, which look like a small skein of bright yellow embroidery floss but turned out to have a subtly sweet and custardy taste. We also liked the square of cake embedded with cubes of creamy, mild jackfruit.
On another visit, we sampled the available ice creams — three small, rich spheres in a glass dish ($3.50). Our flavor selections were the flamboyantly colorful purple yam — think sweet potato in royal garb — the more retiring but mildly sweet jack fruit and the bright orange tropical and fragrant mango.
Sampler portions are tiny, especially if you’re sharing.
But that should inspire you to return to try a full serving.
Alice T. Carter can be reached at acarter@tribweb.com or 412-320-7808.

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Angkor
Cuisine: Cambodian and Thai
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Sundays
Entree price range: Dinner $7.95- $15.95; Lunch, limited list of entrees served with soup and vegetable spring roll at $6.50 and $6.95
Notes: Reservations accepted and advisable on weekends; completely nonsmoking; BYOB acceptable, no corkage fee; accepts most major credit cards
Location: 2350 Noblestown Road, Pittsburgh, on the border with Crafton and Greentree
Details: 412-928-8424
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