KHMER THAI (1018 St. Clair West, at Appleton, 416-654-0609) Forget pad thai. This gaudy west-side storefront specializes in subtly spiced Cambodian dishes that combine influences from neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand as well as those further afield - India, Portugal and France. Warning: extremely uncomfortable food-court-style seating. Complete dinners for $20 per person ($12 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a $3 domestic beer. Average main: $7. Open Monday to Friday 11 am to 9 pm, Saturday 11 am to 10 pm, Sunday 5 to 9 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
Wedged between thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia has a cuisine that is often described as a watered-down version of both. With neither the fiery highs of Thai nor the vibrant textures of Vietnamese cooking, it's unfamiliar fare to most foodies. Khmer Thai's Sarann and Tharo Cahouk are about to enlighten them. Their garish storefront setting may put most off at first - think fluorescent-lit fried chicken joint gone tropical - but they'll be converts once they sample the couple's subtle Cambodian dishes. And while half the lineup includes the usual Thai suspects, as its name suggests - green mango salad, Tom Kha Gai coconut chicken soup, obligatory ketchup-laced pad thai - it's the remainder that take the starring role.
Today I've enlisted artists Erella Ganon and Fiona Smyth to assist me in my gourmet foray. But first we'll have to contort ourselves into Khmer's bolted-to-the-floor food-court-style seating. Once entwined, and after the volume on the television immediately overhead has been lowered, the comfort begins.
Although Khmer's takeout menu is divided into appetizers and main courses, Cambodian dishes are traditionally served at the same time and always sided with a mound of aromatic jasmine rice. Nevertheless, two quartets of everyday spring rolls - one of crisp, golden deep-fried cylinders wrapped around cellophane noodle, carrot thread and crunchy slivered wood ear fungus; and another of lemon-grass-scented minced pork (both $3.95) - are the first to arrive.
It's not until they're dunked into tuk, a sweet-and-sour condiment that's similar to Vietnamese nuoc cham and served with nearly everything here, that the understated differences between the kitchens of Phnom Penh and those of nearby Saigon and Bangkok becomes evident.
Cambodians hold back the heat but fire up the taste buds in other directions, particularly with prahok, the stinky, salty and slightly bitter fermented fish paste that's leftover from making nam pla fish sauce. The Khmer spice palate also contains Indian notes, notably those of cardamom and turmeric, that result in restrained explosions.
Soon our table is piled with plates. Intentionally rubbery in texture, 10 or so twoonie-sized unidentified fish cakes ($5.95) come sided with contrasting cool, undressed romaine, another shot of energizing tuk and medium-strength blasts of sweet tongue-tingling sambal olek.
Our server explains that although our Khmer Pancake ($6.95) comes served like a nicely spiced ground chicken omelette garnished with mung bean sprouts and salad on the side, it really should be eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves and dunked into tuk. Customers at the owner's two previous Cambodian eateries in Kingston found the concept too messy, he says. Provincials, say we.
Cosmopolitan locals will adore the appropriately named Soup Delight, a luxurious broth studded with shredded chicken breast, plump pineapple and pulpy tomato. A whole green chili lies surreptitiously submerged at the bottom of the bowl. Bursting with spice pods, it's more stew than soup - stoup? - and considered a shared main.
Hot and Sour Bamboo Soup (both soups $6.95) finds slender shoots, chicken, Japanese eggplant and long bean swimming in a gloriously intense coral-hued stock lightly flecked with tiny shards of bird chili. Coconut cream, thick cross-sections of sliced galangal, waxy kaffir lime leaf and huge shards of easily removed lemon grass add further subtlety.
Although it resembles a cheap Chinatown lunch special, Samlaw Khmer ($5.25) holds even more surprises, this time the deliciously understated tamarind sauce that coats this moist chicken 'n' veggie stir-fry over rice.
Now Khmer moves in for the kill. The most expensive item on the menu and one of the most generously portioned, Siam Delight ($8.95) delivers a dozen barely battered butterflied shrimp alongside a tangle of peppers perfumed with holy basil. Skinny specks of red bird chili push this Delight into Thai territory, but like most of Khmer's Cambodian card, the heat builds slowly to a burn.
After a final round of saccharine lassi-like green tea shakes ($2.50), the decision's unanimous.
We'll definitely Khmer again.