The Weekly Eater

Nadine Kam

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Homespun Cambodian
fare a treat at Chez Sovan

In the weeks prior to Chez Sovan Express, near the Star-Bulletin offices at Restaurant Row, we watched the moving-in process with anticipation and curiosity, wondering what Cambodian "gourmet food to go" would be like.

It turns out geography provides all the clues we need. With Cambodia sandwiched between Thailand to its Northwest border and Vietnam toward the Southeast, the country's cuisine represents the mixed culinary marriage of both food groups so well-represented here. Oh, and let's not forget traces of Chinese heritage looming in the background.

On the one hand, there's the stir-fried vermicelli noodles with chicken, or cha mee sour (entrees $2.99 mini plus .75 cents more if you want rice/$4.99 for two choices with rice and drink), that is a ringer for any Thai restaurant's pad thai, down to the crunch of beansprouts and sprinkling of crushed peanuts. There are barbecued meat sticks (pork, beef or chicken at $1.99 apiece) that bear a blend of herbs -- primarily lemongrass -- plus sugar and garlic familiar in Vietnamese-style barbecue.

Now, you could argue whether the child resembles mother or father most, but of the two parents, Chez Sovan pulls more toward the Vietnamese side. Its individual nature is more subdued than either cuisine, lacking the spice of Thai food and the showmanship of Vietnamese fare, with the flourish of rice-paper wraps and stacks of greens.

And look for that Chinese ancestry to reveal its features in stir fries, including one of eggplant and tofu. When they ran out of tofu on opening day, chicken was substituted, adding more protein to the ground pork in the dish.

In spite of the "gourmet" motto, this is more of a fast-food haven, offering the homespun recipes of Sovan Thuy and her family and friends.

Being family, it can seem chaotic behind the counter with so many bodies scrambling around, but being family, they also have the extra-sensory ability to say, "Get out of the way," with a grunt or nod so they communicate orders quite well, with food arriving in minutes -- hot, fresh and every bit as impressive as at a more formal establishment.

"Express" implies there must be a full-service restaurant elsewhere, and sure enough, the family's backed by the experience of having run two successful Sovan restaurants in California. In traveling here year after year, they noticed the abundance of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, and figured there might be interest in Cambodian food as well.

Chez Sovan Express, a family-owned Cambodian restaurant, just opened this week at Restaurant Row. Here are three generations of the family, from left: Samantha Nong and her grandmother Sovan Thuy, holding barbeque sticks; Ackara Nou, holding Amok, or steamed fish with spices wrapped in banana leaves; and Kelly Nou, Ackara's mother, holding Cha Kroeng Moin, or a stir-fried spicy chicken, and a chicken curry dish.

THOSE WHO remember Boomerang's, formerly situated on Sovan's site, may be relieved to see the macho, log cabin decor replaced by a gentler, warm and uplifting layer of pale yellow paint. This may prove more inviting to Restaurant Row's movie crowd, who've never been able to give many of the Row's smaller restaurants the support needed to stay open nights and weekends. We've watched many of them come and go.

At Chez Sovan, the price is right also, and if we lowly ink-stained wretches can afford $5 for a meal here, I figure anyone can. I've even taken to leaving the brown bag at home. The choice is easy. Hmm. My homemade turkey chili again or karr pong tae, the Cambodian pork and whole egg stew, similar to Filipino adobo in flavor, with less of the vinegary bite. Or my invention of tofu cacciatore or their amok, collard greens and white fish flavored with galangal, lemongrass, shallots and coconut milk, wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf. When I unwrapped the package the first time, I thought it was salmon they were serving, with the fish turned vivid orange thanks to a sprinkling of paprika.

Portions are smaller than most are accustomed to with an average plate lunch, but as a result, I never felt I was straying too far from my carefully measured daily regimen.

The pork stew and ka ree moin, or chicken curry made with coconut milk, carrots and potatoes, are family favorites and are both likely to become patrons' favorites as well.

Cambodian cuisine aims to strike a balance between sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavors, though here sweetness dominates most of the dishes. This won't be a problem for most in Hawaii, where we tend to love sugary treats, though some expecting spicy food have been disappointed. To assuage the fire eaters out there, Chez Sovan does make chili sauce available on the side.

If sugar is too cloying for you, then you might prefer the cubes of deep-fried white fish, served in salty sauce of fermented beans with the punch ginger, served up in large slivers.

While the menu is small, it does offer variety, and the family promises desserts to come. As a neighbor, I'm hoping they'll stay a long while.

Chez Sovan Express

Restaurant Row, 500 Ala Moana Boulevard / 599-8812

Food Star Star Star Star

Service Star Star Star Star

Ambience Star Star Half-star

Value Star Star Star Star

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Fridays

Cost: $5 to $6 per person; $22 for a family of four

See some past restaurant reviews in the Columnists section.

Nadine Kam's restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Bulletin. Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants:

very good, exceeds expectations;
below average.

To recommend a restaurant, write: The Weekly Eater, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hawaii 96802. Or send e-mail to


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