Cambodian chefs and cooks are masterful in the art of spice blending. Pungent spices such as clove, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and turmeric are typical in southeast Asian cuisine, but when expertly combined into pastes (aka kroeung) using native ingredients like galangal, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, cilantro, and kaffir lime leaves, the results are distinctly Cambodian!
In Rhode Island, Cambodian residents makes up the largest percentage of the Southeast Asian population. Approximately 85% of our Cambodian neighbors live in Providence and Cranston, so it should come as no surprise that excellence in Khmer cuisine is tempting the masses.
Cue Bayon Cafe, (ហាងកាហ្វេបាយ័ន) applause please! Hidden in plain view on Reservoir Ave is a wicked fine find. I wish I could speak of accidentally stumbling across this unassuming little restaurant in my travels, but I was thankfully invited without fanfare.
Under the watchful eye of Chef Bopha, the shining star dish was the Nam Yaa Soup (curry, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and garlic). What Phở is to the Vietnamese, and Chicken Soup is to the Jews, Nam Yaa is the blissful and medicinal elixir that will cure what ails ya. With or without ramen, this bold flavored and spicy broth just made my day more memorable.
The Grilled Salmon Fillet, served with a sweet tamarind sauce was an excellent pairing. Salmon is often a stronger tasting fish and was successfully balanced with a sweet and savory element. Garnished so attractively on the plate, the dish was bright and inviting. In addition to the tamarind sauce, there is optional sauce – curry “Choo Chee.” I’m not sure what “Choo Chee” is, but it’s fun to say it out loud without getting in trouble.
My absolute favorite was the Natang. Ground pork is a bland protein which requires thoughtful preparation in order for unique flavor profiles to be developed. The addition of coconut milk changes everything. As a person who does not enjoy coconut, Cambodian cooking makes me eat my words. Add in the crunchy rice crackers for dipping, and you’ve got yourself a party.
Of course you’ve had wings before, but have you tried the Bayon Wings? The wings are gently tossed in a mild lemongrass sauce and garnished with fresh jalapenos. The wings were crunchy on the outside and tender and juicy within.
The Tuk Tuk Noodles (flat noodles stir fried with a protein, vegetables, egg, and a curry coconut sauce) were a standout in both taste and texture. I believe a Tuk Tuk is a type of a small trailer pulled by a cyclist and a pleasant way of touring the Angkor temples in Cambodia. How this translates to a damn fine noodle dish is anyone’s guess.
The Bayon Cafe is simply appointed and noticeably clean. The service is attentive and warmly delivered. The menu is ideally limited to that which Bayon can expertly prepare, and offers a reasonably affordable price point.
I feel fortunate that there exists diverse populations and accommodating restaurants such as the Bayon Cafe in my neighborhood. Adventures in dining can only be made possible when there exists a need. When the dining public becomes accustomed to chain-food dining, the flavor profiles are reduced to salt and sugar. The cooking methods are reduced to frying, and landscape falls victim to a cookie cutter design. Nothing could be less interesting than this.
Head over to the Bayon Cafe, “tuk” in, order a large bowl of Nam Yaa, sit back and relax. Good things are likely…
Bayon Café | 745 Reservoir Avenue | Cranston, RI 02910 | 401-943-1728
Extra Info: Built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon is a well-known and richly decorated Khmer temple at Angkor in Cambodia.