San Franciscans enjoy an embarrassment of Southeast Asian culinary delights. Every neighborhood has its Thai and Vietnamese restaurants vying for locals' dining dollars, and for the tastes of Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, or the Philippines you'll have a choice of destinations. So it's odd that the city has only one restaurant specializing in the sophisticated, fascinating cuisine of Cambodia.
Angkor Borei is no secret. This family-run spot has been serving outer-Mission District and Bernal Heights residents and savvy visitors for almost 20 years, and has made several appearances in SF Weekly's Best of San Francisco' listings. You start to see why the instant you step from the gray and gritty stretch of Mission Street into the cozy interior, filled with appetizing smells of fish and spices, and the owner comes over with a sincerely warm and cheerful greeting to see you to a table under the gilded eaves surrounding the closed kitchen or one of the kitschy paintings of tourist attractions that line the other walls.
While the menu includes many dishes that may be familiar from Thai or Chinese restaurants, for a meal you won't get elsewhere in town, stick to the Cambodian specialties. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the cuisine is its frequent use of prahok, a salty, fermented fish paste reminiscent of the Indonesian terasi shrimp paste, used equally sparingly so as not to overpower the dish. For example, in sour beef soup, the strong salty fishiness of the prahok is tempered by mild ingredients, including thin-sliced beef, cooked eggplant, spinach, bell peppers, and galangal (a close cousin to ginger).
For a more uninhibited introduction, try the prahok dip, listed as “stewed ground pork.” While the menu includes it among the entrees, for us Americans it feels more like an appetizer: a bowl of warm dip surrounded by sliced raw celery, jalapeño, cabbage, cucumber, carrot, broccoli, and eggplant. That's right, raw eggplant, which as odd as it sounds is a perfect foil for the rich, fishy, meaty, salty, sour dip. Some people will think this dish is too weird — so much the better for those of us who could devour a whole bowl ourselves.
Another must-order, crispy rice chips, is a bit similar. A bowl of dip made with pork, coconut milk, and dried shrimp in place of prahok comes surrounded by its classic vehicle, crunchy homemade rice cakes. Traditionally, these were made from the crust at the bottom of the rice pot; in this era of never-fail rice cookers, the rice is first dried out in a frying pan, then baked in the oven. This dish is addictive, though I prefer the chips with the stronger prahok dip.
Continuing the finger-food theme, ordering “fresh spinach leaves” gets you a big bowl of them on a platter that also includes small dishes with peanuts, diced lime with peel, chopped red onion, toasted unsweetened coconut, diced green chilies, small dry shrimp, and diced ginger. Grab a leaf, toss on your choice of goodies, splash on a bit of tamarind fish sauce, and pop it in your mouth. It's sort of a DIY version of the Burmese tea leaf or ginger salads in the way it combines a kaleidoscopic assortment of flavors and textures.
Another distinctive feature of Cambodian cuisine is kroeung, a kind of curry made from fresh roots and other seasonings pounded to a paste with a mortar and pestle just prior to cooking. Kroeungs traditionally include galangal, turmeric, garlic, shallot, lemongrass, and the leaves and zest of kaffir limes, in various proportions depending on the dish, and occasionally with additional ingredients. Compared with their distant relatives in India, kroeungs are on average restrained and understated, as for example in ahmohk, a delicate fish mousse steamed in a cute handmade banana-leaf bowl. The lovely contrast between meltingly soft custard and soft, crumbly fish, followed by a haunting aftertaste of subtle aromatic spices, makes this leaf-lickingly good to the last moist crumb.
Another kroeung-based dish, called “slices of beef,” is slightly wilted spinach topped with beef in sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Tart and sour flavors are balanced with a slight sweetness and a hint of fish sauce for a tasty whole, but overall this is too much like a less exciting version of the Thai classic pra ram loong soong to order again. Same goes for the crispy Cambodian crepe and cold Cambodian noodles, which are very good but not quite up there with some of their Vietnamese counterparts in the Tenderloin, and for the “sauteed seafood combo with lots of shrimp, squid, mussels, and fish with vegetables,” which resembles unexceptional Chinese food.
On the other hand, the charbroiled pork is just as good as the Thai version, featuring just a spice rub, a bit of lime juice, and a not-too-sweet garlic sauce. Simple but delicious. Ditto for the squid salad and beef salad, which are spiced distinctively enough, with lots of spearmint, to assert their nationality. The squid has a nice spicy kick and is easily the best of the pair.
Also excellent is the pan-fried fish fillet with garlic sauce, a meaty white fish, perfectly filleted, battered and fried crisp, sauced with a little gingery broth with a bit of soy and bits of bell pepper and scallions, and strewn with a good half-cup of sauteed chopped garlic. But for the touch of fish sauce, this could pass in a good Hong Kong seafood house, as could a light, fresh dish of asparagus sautéed with shrimp, sliced red bell peppers, shrimp sauce, lots of minced garlic, and oyster sauce.
The hit entree of one meal is char toum plang, prawns sautéed in homemade chili sauce, with thin-sliced bamboo shoots, red bell peppers, embryonic corn, and sweet basil. The slightly smoky, spicy, minty flavors seem like they'd go even better with squid — and they do, with thick, al dente slices of big old guys, crosshatched with shallow cuts to make them easier to chew. The sauce is noticeably sweet but well balanced by the strong squid flavor, the funkiness of the tart and earthy bamboo, and the afterburn from the seriously spicy sauce.
The menu lists only two desserts, luckily both good. A mound of warm, nutty, aromatic black rice cooked with coconut milk and topped with half a firm, barely ripe, barely sweet mango is a seriously grown-up treat, like a wine that smells fruity but turns out to be dry and rustic — a superior rendition of this Asian-restaurant standby. At the other end of the kid-friendly spectrum is the fried banana with coconut ice cream from nearby Mitchell's. Seeing our enthusiasm, the owner asks if we'd like to try a not-on-the-menu dessert she made for some friends who'd been in earlier (she has some left over). She brings us a warm, souplike pudding of coconut milk and bananas, thickened with tapioca and flavored with toasted sesame seeds. This lagniappe makes a charming end to a delightful meal.
How much do regulars love this place? On my second visit, one of them stops by to pick up a to-go order, gives the owner a big hug, and apologizes for not having been in for a couple of weeks since she's been out of town. That's the kind of well-deserved loyalty that could see Angkor Borei through another 20 years.