When it comes to food, South Philadelphia is one of the most diverse areas in the city. You can find hand-cut pasta at Italian BYOBs, crispy, sweet, deep-fried sesame balls at Vietnamese bakeries, slow-cooked pork tacos at Mexican taquerias, and the neighborhood’s iconic greasy cheesesteaks — all within a few blocks. It’s also home to a large Cambodian community and the pocket of South Philly around Mifflin Square is dotted with excellent Khmer restaurants. For the ultimate Cambodian food crawl, head to 7th Street where it intersects with W. Moyamensing Avenue, and bring at least two friends to sample bowls of rich noodle soup, spicy papaya salad, lemongrass-scented stir fry, and other classic Cambodian dishes.
Stats for this food crawl:
Streets traversed: One, with a short detour
Soups slurped: Three
Proteins consumed: Beef, chicken, pork, fish, and peanuts
Times we tried to visit Khmer Sweet Basil when it should have been open but was closed: Three
Chha Kroeung (Lemongrass Stir Fry) at I Heart Cambodia
2207 S. 7th Street
We head first to I Heart Cambodia, a 10-table BYOB with a welcoming vibe, decked out in twinkle lights with a TV set to The Chew. We choose one of the round tables for the lazy susan in the center, making it easier to pass around plates of crunchy, bright papaya salad that delivers a nice little kick, sweet and sour soup with pineapple and lotus stalks, and tilapia with ginger, pan-fried in bite-sized pieces and mixed with chiles and thin matchsticks of ginger. But if you’re going to get one plate here, which is advisable if you’re doing the crawl, ask for the off-menu “hot stir fry” with chicken or beef. Served with a plate of white rice, the dish consists of thin, tender flakes of beef mixed with real lemongrass (as opposed to the lemongrass paste in the stir fry, or chha, listed on the menu), plus whole peanuts, cloves of garlic, and basil, for a fresh, pungent taste, and a little heat thanks to some peppers. Tables are stocked with homemade chili paste, “seasoning” (MSG), and other additives to adjust the flavors.
Com Chien Dac Biet (House Special Fried Rice) at Heng Seng
2217 S. 7th Street
Just a few doors down, Heng Seng opens early, at 9 a.m. daily, catering to the breakfast crowd with congee and noodle soups and ice coffee with condensed milk. The tiny restaurant serves excellent Phnom Penh-style egg noodle soup, with a combination of pork, shrimp, fish, and beef in a rich pork-based broth, topped with a lettuce leaf and a fistful of cilantro. The pan-fried noodle dishes with juicy chicken and Chinese broccoli are also a good choice. But the dish we devoured the fastest was the house special fried rice, here called by its Vietnamese name. Heng Seng’s version of the ubiquitous dish includes the usual scallions, bits of fried egg, and whole shrimp, but also uses herbs, garlic, and — game changer — slices of deep red, salty Chinese sausage. For added heat, break open the jar of house-made pickled jalapenos on the table and, per the owner’s instruction, alternate between bites of the spicy green pepper and the rich, salty stir fry.
Hu Tieu or Kuy Teav (Rice Noodle Soup) at New Phnom Penh
2301 S. 7th Street
About two blocks south, find New Phnom Penh — another tiny spot filled with loyal locals. Owned by a woman who hails from Cambodia, the menu has Vietnamese and Chinese influences too, which is typical of Khmer cuisine in general. At almost every table, diners are eating plates of deep-fried spring rolls filled with minced pork and glass noodles. Served in bite-sized pieces, they come with slices of raw cucumber and a bowl of spicy sour dipping sauce that’s made with fish sauce, vinegar, and a little sugar, with crushed peanuts floating on top. Fried egg noodle dishes with meat and Chinese broccoli are also popular here, but on this stop we go for a bowl of rice noodle soup with ground and sliced pork, served alongside a small plate of crunchy bean sprouts and slices of lime. (The restaurant goes with the Vietnamese name, hu tieu.) The proprietor brings out extra bowls and spoons for sharing, and the dau chao quay, or fried breadsticks, are a perfect addition.
Golden Phoenix at Boba and Company
600 W. Moyamensing Avenue
For the last stop, we double back to Boba and Company, a family-run food truck that spills out onto the corner of 6th Street and W. Moyamensing Avenue with tables and potted plants. The move is to come here last for Cambodian shaved ice (called The Forbidden, with layers of green and black grass jelly, jackfruit, basil seeds, flavored ice, fruit, red beans, and condensed milk), but we also get an order of the stuffed chicken wings. No matter how full you are, save room for a bite of the Golden Phoenix — a plump, deboned chicken wing stuffed with minced chicken, clear glass noodles, wood ear mushrooms, and lemongrass seasoning. Originally from Cambodia, husband and wife Kado Un and Sarin Sieng also make boba teas and fruit smoothies in every color of the rainbow; Cambo Sweet Corn, grilled and drizzled with coconut sauce; Lao-style sausage; and papaya salad, among other sweet and savory fare. “We do traditional, but give it a modern kick,” says Un. You might want to make this your first stop next time around.