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Downtown’s Hidden Gems: Cambodian Thai Restaurant

J.J. Rees | Thursday, April 2, 2009

It’s easy to condemn the South Bend/Mishawaka area as a wasteland completely void of quality international food. With the Grape Rd. strip packed with convenient, repetitive chains, the smaller, harder-to-find local restaurants are easily lost in the background of student-driven South Bend indifference. It is easier, albeit not much, to give up on the lack of international cuisine surrounding Notre Dame and settle for a Grape Rd. chain, but it is so much more worthwhile to seek out local establishments that highlight South Bend’s substantial and underrated international fare with earnestness.Granted, the Taco Bell’s and Don Pablo’s serve their purpose, but college is about growing up or at least expanding one’s boundaries. I admit that my experiences with Thai food can be counted on one hand, but my introduction was mollified by Cambodian Thai Restaurant, located on South Michigan St. across from Club Fever and J & F’s Pot of Gold (formerly Rum Runners).This is exactly the kind of place that one would describe as bare bones. The all-beige interior is sparsely decorated with East Asian trinkets and faded photographs of Cambodian landmarks. The whole restaurant seats only about 20 and about a quarter of the orders are for take out. Water is served without spectacle, while sodas are brought in cans with glasses of ice.The simple menu lists over 75 items, including appetizers, soup, salad, noodles, rice dishes, entrées, rice curries and desserts. The back of the menu contains sleeved printout pictures of Cambodian places of interest as if it were a C+ 6th grade geography project. When asked, “What do you recommend?” the server responded simply, “I don’t know; whatever you like,” and it was clear that he wasn’t being rude, but rather straightforward. It gave the impression that the staff is confident in its food and justly so.The Crab Rangoon appetizer was pleasingly presented in a boat-shaped dish with a section for the clear sauce, but the wonton’s bread consistency outweighed the very small purses of crab stuffing. The steamed pot stickers, on the other hand, were possibly the pinnacle of the meal. Served affably in a woven basket lined with lettuce, these gratifying dumplings seemed to melt in the mouth. The sesame soy sauce provided an excellent complement to the savory dough and fillings.One of the most popular dishes at Cambodian Thai is the pad thai. This most well known dish in Thai cuisine consists of cooked rice noodles with eggs, nam pla (fish sauce), crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, garlic, chili peppers and beef, chicken, or usually shrimp, sometimes served with a slice of lime. Here, besides the dry chicken, the dish rendered a rich, flavorful taste of the well-prepared combination. It clearly draws from many different flavors and may seem strange to an American palate but is an apt introduction to Thai food.Another of Cambodian Thai’s most popular dishes is the drunken noodle, which is similar to the pad thai, but with broad rice noodles, easily the best part of the dish. Large chunks of onion are a bit overpowering, but they compensate for the full taste of the stir fried noodles. The shrimp is surprisingly fresh, and it is prepared well.Other popular dishes are the five or so curries, including red and yellow. These curries come in various degrees of spiciness, which are mild enough or hot enough to fit almost any preference. The favorite is the panang, which is based in a coconut milk sauce and is sure to rouse any American palate.Diners should be warned that every once in a while, the restaurant is closed when the staff take a trip to Cambodia; definitely call ahead.Cambodian Thai Restaurant, although lazily named, is an excellent outlet for international food, and perhaps one of the best in South Bend. Its convenient location makes it accessible to and from many downtown landmarks. The bare bones atmosphere, service, and presentation make for a simple, easy, and quiet excursion into Thai food. Cambodian Thai Restaurant is certainly worth a visit, regardless of one’s familiarity with Thai cuisine.

Cambodian Thai Restaurant (3/4)229 S. Michigan St.; 574-289-2877Hours: 11:30-9 M-Th, Su, 11:30-10 SaPrices: Apps $3-6, Entrées $5-1010 words or less: Simple, low cost, high quality Thai food.