A new wave of Cambodian cooking for the L.A. Times:
PHOTO by GARY FRIEDMAN / L.A. TIMES
In Long Beach’s Cambodia Town, restaurants are measured not only by the heat of their ground pork curries or the tartness of their sour catfish soups but also by the brilliance of their chandeliers and the strength of their karaoke-capable sound systems. For years, La Lune was such a place, a restaurant where birthday parties were celebrated, anniversaries were commemorated and mayoral campaigns were launched.
But in April, a fire wiped out La Lune. Losing the restaurant tore open a void in the Khmer community, one that the Saing family worked quickly to fill. Now La Lune has been refined and reborn as Little La Lune, a small-scale spinoff in a quiet strip mall with ambitions beyond its downsized dining room. Little La Lune isn’t simply leveraging its legacy; the restaurant represents a new wave, a contemporary Cambodian cafe designed for a new generation.
Little La Lune is a picture of Modernism. A bouquet of pendant lamps casts columns of light onto wine-red walls. Radiant white booths glow with a halo of backlighting. It’s a stark contrast to Cambodia Town’s biggest banquet halls, where decades-old dining rooms remain unchanged, as if being preserved for historical study. Little La Lune’s menu too has been recalibrated. Gone are the hallmarks of the banquet kitchen: no hulking lobster tails, no caldrons of Cantonese-style soup, no oversize platters of dessert. The menu instead has been pared down to the most approachable essentials.
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All-American soul power for the L.A. Times:
PHOTO by LUIS SINCO / L.A. TIMES
For every restaurant whose menu reads like a doctoral thesis on globalization, there are those that still consider a kind of insular Americana the noblest pursuit. These are the dens of hard-line pit masters and down-home confectioners, restaurants where the American culinary heritage provides incubation for innovation.
At the similarly minded but altogether unaffiliated Toni’s Soul Burgers in Inglewood and Otis Jackson’s Soul Dog in North Hollywood, that American ingenuity takes the form of a double dose of comfort: hybridized hamburgers and hot dogs fused with soul food.
Toni Malone’s towering burgers may be the most ambitious in all of Los Angeles. Yet there are no contrivances here: no custom-ground meat blends, no willful denial of ketchup and no flavors fortified by what might otherwise amount to a chemistry experiment. Instead, the restaurant’s signature burger is a tender, hand-formed turkey patty, a crispy lattice of turkey bacon, a firmly fried egg, a single slice of cheese, sweet mashed yams and wilted collard greens on a gently toasted sesame-seed bun. It’s a triumph of maximalism, a burger in expert balance despite its seeming overabundance of ingredients.
Each soul burger is constructed in a tiny storefront so close to Hollywood Park that you can nearly hear hooves hitting dirt. What scarce space there is has been decorated with framed photos of soul and R&B legends, a nod to Malone’s own powerful voice. Neighborhood kids and young families crowd in for takeout while Malone, earnest and effervescent, explains the intricacies of her burgers to those here for the first time.
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