A quick list of some things I miss during the pandemic: Traveling. Bar-hopping. Going to concerts. Blowing out birthday candles in the presence of other people. Oh, and cafe culture. Sitting by myself (or with a friend) on lunch hour, snacking on good food, and watching the neighborhood go by is one of my favorite ways to experience a city. I’d nearly forgotten the joy that it brings me - until I went to Gamboge.
The Cambodian cafe in Lincoln Heights is one of a handful of new brick-and-mortar restaurants to open in LA during the pandemic, and frankly, they make the process look fairly easy. The set-up (you place your order at a table out front and wait for them to bring out your food) is simple, and caters to everyone’s comfort level. If you’re looking to grab your food and go, every dish at Gamboge (whether you’re eating there or not) comes in to-go boxes. If you’re meeting a friend, but aren’t interested in dining-in, the LA State Historic Park is a few minutes down road, with all the socially distant space you could want. But if you’re in the mood to hang on a patio, you won’t find many better than the one here. With taunt sun canopies, potted plants, and a wooden fence lining the perimeter, it feels like you’re in your best friend’s backyard, not a restaurant.
Luckily, the food coming out of the kitchen is much better than any friend could come up with.
Every meal at Gamboge needs to start with the num pang. A close cousin to the banh mi, these long, slender sandwiches are served on crunchy bolillo bread and filled with everything from poached chicken to grilled oyster mushrooms. The pork shoulder is one of our favorite new sandwiches in LA. If you’re looking for something healthier, but still hearty, do the nerom sach moan. It’s a massive salad filled with shredded chicken, vegetables, herbs, roasted peanuts, and a spicy fish sauce citrus dressing that both elevates and balances the many different ingredients. As for the sides, I love the smokiness of the braised tomatoes with sardines, and if their Cambodian street corn (grilled and served in a coconut milk glaze) becomes LA’s next street food craze, consider me already in line.
What Gamboge provides me the most with, though, is a sense of ease. Ordering’s a breeze, there’s a patio and park nearby, and the tremendous food is exactly what I need to power through the rest of the day. Most importantly, though, I’m comforted to know that LA’s cafe culture isn’t going anywhere. And that’s worth remembering.
I’d recommend any of the num pang at Gamboge, but if I had to pick a favorite, it’d be the grilled pork shoulder. Marinated in five spice and a house lemongrass and chili paste, the protein alone could be its own entree (don’t worry, it is), but when mixed with the pate, Maggi mayo, chili jam, and pickled papaya and carrot slaw, it quickly becomes one of the most memorable new sandwiches you’ll find in LA.
I’ll be honest, this is a dish myself and Staff Writer Kat Hong communicate about daily. Because, at any given point, one of us is thinking about it. Cooked with onions, lemon, cilantro, and fried shallots, you’ll take one bite of this incredible side dish and immediately understand why.
Amongst all the eye-catching dishes on Gamboge’s menu, this “Khmer Chicken Salad” might not immediately jump out at you. But make no mistake, it’s one of the best things here. Filled with pulled poached chicken, cabbage, carrot, red pepper, mint, basil, cilantro, fried shallots, and toasted peanuts, this massive salad is savory, aromatic, and benefits greatly from the heat provided by the spicy fish sauce citrus dressing.
Nobody looks good eating corn on the cob in public, but when it tastes as good as it does at Gamboge, personal aesthetics should be of zero concern.