It was in 1910 that Robert Ripley, in his iconic “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” column, made his most famous claim: “If all the Chinese in the world were to march four abreast in front of a given point, they would never finish passing, though they march forever and ever.” It was based on the birth rate of Chinese people at the time. And over the next century it was adjusted several times, becoming much more than four abreast.
I often think of this mathematical notion when I eat at one of the countless restaurants in our many ethnic enclaves. Could I ever dine at the countless Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley? Of course not! The same can be said of Korean destinations in Mid-City Los Angeles, Indian curry houses in Artesia and Vietnamese restaurants in Westminster.
But I have no idea if that’s true of the Cambodian options in the Cambodia Town section of Long Beach. The Cambodian community is not as large as the others. And the number of options seems closer to finished. Which makes Koh Ruessei (Bamboo Island) Cambodian.
Indeed, the restaurant protects its image, with a menu that declares “South Asian cuisine” — and a branch of a Santa Ana “wedding and thrift cake” Latin store on the premises. You crave a banana leaf with baby shrimp and pork, while you order a birthday cake decorated with “Sesame Street” characters, with a mocha filling and a pastry cream interior, it’s the place to go. In addition, there is sport on the big screens. Life in Cambodia Town is very pleasant.
Through Wikipedia’s seemingly bottomless knowledge, we learn that Long Beach “has the most Cambodian restaurants in the United States – 22. Some Cambodian restaurants in town serve Thai cuisine, while others serve Chinese cuisine.In 2000, part of Central Long Beach was officially designated as a Cambodian town, where since 2005 there has been an annual parade and cultural festival that also features Cambodian cuisine…”
Well, of course. At notables like Phnom Penh Noodle Shack, Sophy’s, Little La Lune, Crystal Thai-Cambodian, Hak Heang and Golden Chinese Express.
For the record, the second-best destination for Cambodian cuisine is Lowell, Massachusetts, with 20 restaurants — not far from The Elephant Walk restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., which inspired the highly respected Cambodian-American cookbook that bears its name.
Which brings us to Koh Ruessei (Bamboo Island) Cambodian, which may not seem particularly Cambodian at casual dining; the Southeast Asian cuisine cover line covers tastes and ingredients very well. And the presence of dishes like chicken chow mein, spring rolls, and combo fried rice provide dishes that are familiar enough to at least feel somewhat Chinese. And yet, for those looking for a taste of Phnom Penh, there are wonders to discover.
Noodle soups abound in Cambodian cuisine – and on the menu here too. The very first course is the Phnom Penh dry noodle soup, which means the ingredients are served in a bowl with the broth on the side, accompanied by bean sprouts. The idea is that you mix the ingredients yourself, creating a soup that is more or less runny, more bean spout or less. (The bean sprouts option is repeated in many soups. Which makes the bean sprouts seem much more important than they are. I’m more interested in the lime that comes with the sprouts on the plate .)
If you want to try something noticeably different, try the ginger chicken. It’s a big plate that looks like chicken with noodles on the menu, but it’s not. These noodles are slices of ginger, a plate, and a reminder that in the West, the sharpness of flavor has been removed from ginger. It’s not the ginger in ginger ale. It’s ginger with muscle, ginger with bite. It’s a remarkable flavor.
And a reminder that this is truly a unique cuisine from the neighboring Thai cuisine that we are so used to. Order the steamed clams or the fried catfish with tamarind sauce and the sweet and sour shrimp and catfish soup. Remember that with a little digging, dishes from Cambodia can be found on the menu. They are worth digging into.
And from the many tables of guys watching football matches, Koh Ruessei isn’t just a place to eat or order some pastries. It is also a neighborhood destination for American sports. Although, as I noticed, without clapping. The locals were as quiet as the Americans as a cricket match.
Koh Ruessei (Bamboo Island)
- Rating: 2.5 stars
- Address: 816 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach
- Information: 562-912-7316, www.restaurantji.com/ca/long-beach/koh-ruessei-restaurant-/
- Food: Both Cambodian and Thai restaurant, with an on-site bakery business offering colorful creations for weddings and birthdays. Sometimes described as a “noodle restaurant”, although there is much more to the menu than noodles. It’s a major gathering place for local Southeast Asians and one of the busiest restaurants in the city of Cambodia, with big screens showing sports as well.
- When: Lunch and dinner, daily
- Details: beer and wine; useful reservations
- Prices: About $15 per person
- Suggested dishes: 12 soups ($8.95-$9.95), spring rolls and egg rolls ($7.95), 10 noodle dishes ($9.95-$12.95), 14 rice dishes ($10.95 – $13.95), 24 Main Dishes ($10.95 – $15.95), 16 Fish Dishes ($12.95 at market price), Salads ($12.95 – $19.95), 12 Hot Pot Soups ($14.95 – $17.95)
- Credit card: CM, V
- What do the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth the trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, if not outstanding. Worth the trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A great place to go for a meal. Worth the trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic.) 0 (Honestly not worth it write on it.)