Monday, October 28, 2013

Eating at the Riverside of Long Beach

Cambodiatown in Long Beach, Calif., is a neighborhood lined with Khmer-owned businesses. My wife and I had a chance to stop in and have lunch — but it was not a particularly great meal, though dessert was excellent.

We ate at one of the big, lavishly decorated restaurants near MacArthur Park. It had vast murals of Angkor Wat, a karaoke stage, great sound equipment and space for an epic wedding feast. It also had indifferent cooks, befuddled wait staff and a distracted manager (but this was only one visit, so I'm not naming the restaurant).

Overall, it was a disappointment for my wife, who was expecting a taste sensation straight out of Phnom Penh. But on the way out, we asked the waitress where she liked to eat.


It says "riverside" in Khmer, too.
Just a few blocks down Anaheim and around the corner was a market selling every kind of street food legal in America. Riverside Supermarket had barbecued beef kebabs, fried bananas, papaya salad and anything else a homesick Cambodian could wish for. All at incredibly cheap prices. Even the cafe across the parking lot had a better selection of Khmer meals than the upscale restaurant.

It's a phenomenon that economist Tyler Cowen examines in his book "An Economist Gets Lunch." Restaurants that invest in "nice" atmosphere are selling just that: a venue for impressing people. The rundown place off the main street has to compete on taste and price — things your average Cambodian-American very much cares about when no one is getting married.

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