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Standing outside in a long line for a meal? Who needs that, especially in Paris when the weather can turn on a dime? However, this call to your patience can promise a full-fledged appreciation of what a Cambodian culinary experience is all about. Le Cambodge restaurant, near the Canal St. Martin in Paris’ 10th arrondissement, is a must-do for homemade regional Cambodian fare, wait included. If you enjoy people watching, the line that forms offers up artist types, fancy-dressed tourists, young bo-bo (bourgeois-bohême) French, the elderly, even nuns and priests, all working on their stamina to control hunger pangs they’ve allowed for in order to (eventually) enjoy this dine.
The family-run place started in the 1970s on the Left Bank in Montparnasse, with Papa and Maman Ben and eventually their daughter Kirita (Cambodian for “little child of the fields”) and her husband Mok Slagn (“pale face”) forming a team that continues to offer superb dines.
Arrive at least 15-20 minutes in advance (longer during high season) to “make the line” (faire la queue as the French say). At 8 p.m. promptly, a four-foot-high spry elderly Cambodian woman, Maman Ben, opens the door to this compact venue. Within minutes, all tables are filled and the medley of order taking, sizzling oil, popping wine corks, ringing registers, and the perfumed aromas of Southeast Asia increase in proportion to the buzz of humanity pondering selections. You settle at tables that challenge the tight quarters of any French bistrot. (Go to the restroom before sitting down or you may have to disturb more than one diner to get up again!) Simplicity is the byword here with paper napkins, rudimentary silverware, and no-frills yet inspired décor. The elbow-to-elbow constraint can actually be an advantage, because you will invariably sit near a returning client or two, ready to offer an opinion for sure. And if not, the heavenly spiced and perfumed smells of lemon, nuts, and coconut entice you to request that whatever floats in the air materialize onto your plate.
To order, you are handed a piece of paper and pencil; this a tradition begun by accident years ago when diners descended en masse and the wait staff was negligible. Today, some of the more picturesque orders are saved for display within the restaurant and on the web site. (see picture)
Appetizers (6,50 to 8,50 euros) of spring rolls or dumplings (shellfish or pork) can help stamp hunger as you wait for the main course. Popular dishes include Bobun (9,50 euros), a hot/cold salad of soy, vermicelli rice, beef or shellfish; Natin (11,50 euros), a medley of shellfish in a piquant pork sauce with flavored nuts and coconut served with rice; or Ban Hoy (11,50 euros), an ‘Angkor picnic’ of vermicelli, sauté beef or shellfish, and homemade dumplings, with mint soy salad on the side. These reasonably priced offerings can be accompanied by a variety of beers or a selection of red and white wines.
Oh, and by the way, if you happened to miss the first seating, as tables become available you get another chance, albeit much later but this time with less wait!
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