First there’s the question of whether it’s in Seattle. The address shows Seattle, but it’s actually in White Center.
This Cambodian deli is like the Vietnamese delis in Seattle’s Little Saigon, with some items in steamer trays and some packaged to go. Some items are recognizable to the Western eye, and some are not.
And then there are tables, some of which are covered with platters of food, presumably for parties. I’m not sure what to do beyond entering, until eventually a worker beckons me to take a seat. Turns out there’s a laminated menu with photos of certain dishes, including the stuff I’m looking for: soup noodles.
I ask about the Numbanhchuk (or Num Banh Chuk), but the server speaks very little English. So I point to it on the menu, and she says “it’s very good, very traditional.” The menu describes it as “Old and very traditional Khmer noodle soup made with ground lemongrass and spices, served with many kinds of vegetables (banana flower, bean sprout, cucumber, snake bean, mint).” While I wait, I read Jonathan Kauffman’s 2009 review from Seattle Weekly, hung proudly on one of the walls. Based on his write-up, I anticipate a plate of noodles and veggies along with a bowl of soup, but instead I get a ready bowl of soup, with only lime and a lonely chili pepper to add to it. The “many kinds of vegetables” aren’t immediately evident; the beans (long beans), for example, are very finely chopped. What is evident is the very unique flavor, largely due to the spices, which includes prahok. A staple in Khmer cooking, prahok is made from fermented freshwater fish, and contributes to an overall earthy, sour, and somewhat strange-tasting (pungent but not unpleasant) soft vermicelli noodle bowl that’s an international experience for only $5.
Then there’s the Kuyteav (or Kuy Teav) Phnom Penh, a noodle soup that’s just one dollar more. “This is natural test from bone soup,” the description reads, continuing, “The rice noodle soup could be served with ground pork or/and shrimps. Choice of beef with meat ball or just seafood.” Wow. That’s confusing. A test, indeed—of my willingness to take a leap of faith. Of course I do. Kuy Teav turns out to be like a pork-broth pho, with the same noodles. As a bonus, it contains not only ground pork, but intestines and other interesting bits. Add-ons such as lime and herbs like culantro spruce up the otherwise subtle broth. This is a comforting dish, perfect for a late-morning breakfast.
What I really want after reading Kauffman’s review are the Lizard Eggs. Called Nom Pongn’ Song (or so the menu says), they’re described as “Rice flour shaped like an egg, deep fried with mung bean & chive filling and coated with sugar.” This sounds like my favored combination of sweet and savory in a dessert. But they’re out. Or yet to make them. Maybe in an hour, I’m told, after the server shouts something into the kitchen.
I used to have issues with restaurants like this, but you learn to go with the flow, and to see what happens. I’ll simply have to come back for the Lizard Eggs, which will mean another opportunity to try to chat up whoever’s waiting tables and unearth other gems on the menu. The investment is minimal.
The customer pictured here, for sure, had issues, but as a friend commented upon seeing the photo, he appears to have put his issues behind him. You should do the same when exploring a restaurant like Queen’s Deli.