James Tir, known as @lbfoodcoma on Instagram, is no stranger to knowing the best places to grab a bite to eat in his hometown of Long Beach, Calif. A Cambodia Town native and second-generation Cambodian American, he’s on a mission to encourage more people to experience Cambodian cuisine for themselves. And Long Beach — home to the largest population of Cambodians outside of Cambodia — is the ideal place to start.
“I have a lot of childhood memories tied to the Cambodian food I grew up eating and, in a way, I think that our food, our culture, made me a lot more open to trying other foods and cuisines, too,” Tir says. “The flavors just pack such a punch; it’s big on aromatics like lemongrass, makrut lime, and fermented fish, and everything’s a little sour, a little spicy, and a little funky. It’s almost like Thai, and a little bit like Indian and Vietnamese.”
Here are a few of his favorite spots throughout Long Beach.
“It’s seafood given the Cambodian treatment,” Tir explains. “I’d order the salt-and-pepper whole crab or lobster. Or the grilled oysters — they’re massive and always a safe bet. They’re also very well-known for their kwa koh, a fermented Cambodian sausage made with hand chopped beef, garlic, galangal, and rice.” 3201 East Anaheim Street
For a Khmer spin on hot chicken, you’ve got to head here. “You should definitely go with the basic hot chicken here, but you should also try the Dirty Bird sandwich, which has a hot chicken breast, two mozzarella sticks covered in Khmer spices, two jalapeño peppers, a fried egg, comeback sauce, and ranch dressing, all sandwiched between a brioche bun.” 3630 Atlantic Avenue
Tir’s aunt used to own this restaurant in the heart of Cambodia Town and today, his relatives continue her legacy by running the massive banquet hall and restaurant space. In middle school and high school, he worked at the restaurant as a busboy. “I love ordering some steak here and asking for pra hok as a condiment to go with it. It’s this very pungent-smelling, salty, spicy, and bright fish sauce that pairs so well with the beef dishes and rice, like the beef lok lak. All of the noodles are also great here.” 2041 E Anaheim Street
Kim Sun Kitchen
“It’s a tiny little shop in North Long Beach that’s more Cambodian Chinese and the menu appears more Chinese, but if you know what to order, you can have some really wonderful Cambodian dishes. I’d get the beef sticks for sure — those are always a good barometer of Cambodian food. I also love the mee katang noodles. On the menu, they call it chow fun; it’s like a pad khee mao or pad see ew, but with wide rice noodles that’s stir fried with Chinese broccoli or carrots, and it gets topped with this gravy.” 5449 Cherry Avenue
“Doughnuts are such a huge part of the Cambodian American identity, and the folks at Knead are doing something really special with their doughnuts: It’s really beautiful. They’re always on the front end of the trend, and they’re so thoughtful about how they present them. It’s not just your basic doughnut shop. Everything’s gorgeous. They have vegan doughnuts, gluten-free doughnuts, and cream puff crullers. They’re also known for having a mind-numbingly caffeinated coffee that’ll give you anxiety for a day or two.” 3490 East 7th Street
“This is a great place to get your feet wet in Cambodian cuisine because it’s super accessible,” advises Tir. “Go for the Phnom Penh noodles, which the restaurant is named for. Growing up, I loved Phnom Penh noodles, which are very similar to Vietnamese pho, but the broth is different and it’s served separately from the noodles. I’d also order the Student Noodles, which are sort of like a Pad Thai, and the Loat Cha noodles, which are these short, stubby noodles that get stir-fried with protein or vegetables in this garlicky fish sauce. I love how they have this bouncy texture and with the stir fry, it’s savory and smoky — not nearly as sweet as Pad Thai might be.” 1644 Cherry Avenue
Shlap Muan was started by Hawk and Sophie Tea first in San Francisco, but Hawk grew up here in Long Beach; his parents owned Golden Chinese Express and last fall, he opened his second location out of their restaurant in North Long Beach.
“They do Khmer-style chicken wings, which are a very specific Cambodian American thing because you won’t really find that in Cambodia,” explains Tir. “That happened while we were growing up here, where we’d get big old bags of Tyson chicken wings from Price Club (although it’s Costco these days), and then serve them with a variety of sauces. The wings are based in origin from Cambodian wings — they’re deep-fried and then they’re drenched in this special spice mix and then you have all these different sauces to dip them in.” 2150 East South Street
“It’s a little bit more traditional and they also cater more to a demographic that isn’t just Cambodian. I love ordering the lemongrass beef skewers and rice and chicken, and the Thai boat noodles are delicious.” Tir also recommends ordering the fish amok, a fish curry with delicate white fish and an aromatic curry paste. “It’s an iconic Khmer dish,” he says. Another favorite is the prahok ktiss that’s made with minced pork, prahok, kreung (Khmer spice paste), shrimp paste, coconut milk, bird’s eye chiles, and turkey berries. “This gets paired with an assortment of raw vegetables to use as a dip or wrap,” he explains. “The flavor profile of the prahok ktiss is nutty, savory, and has a nice spicy heat to it.” 3240 Pacific Coast Highway
Read James Tir’s personal essay about what it was like to grow up in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town here.
Have any favorite restaurants to share in your community? We’d love to hear about them. Drop us a line.