A guide to Lowell’s best Khmer food, shopping and entertainment
By The Howl Street Team
Lowell has the largest Cambodian population in the country after Long Beach, California, and that translates to loads of amazing culinary and cultural offerings. Ring in the Year of the Rooster for Cambodian New Year on April 13, with our guide to the city’s best Khmer food, shopping and entertainment. It’s like visiting Cambodia without the jet lag.
Bring your appetite and start at Simply Khmer (26 Lincoln St.). A favorite haunt for authentic Cambodian cuisine that’s wallet-friendly, here you’ll find a lengthy menu with flavorful staples like spicy chicken wings with perfectly crisp skin to mouth-watering Nom banh chok, a popular dish packed with boneless talapia slow cooked in coconut milk, lemongrass, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, broccoli, and served up in banana leaves. Also a hot spot for the culinary adventurous, like Travel Channel host and food connoisseur Andrew Zimmerman, who featured this restaurant on a segment of his poplar TV show “Bizarre Foods.” Here you can chow down on expertly cooked and seasoned dishes of bullfrog legs, alligator, pig intestines and cow feet. The fast and friendly service at this amazing dining spot owned and operated by Sambath Neang and his wife, Denise Ban, is top-notch and the BYOB policy also makes for a great date spot.
Walk down the street to Bopha Bridal Beauty (5 Sheldon St.), where you’ll find affordably priced baubles, bangles, jewels and rows of colorful fabrics. Bopha’s specializes in elaborate, hand-made traditional Cambodia wedding dresses but anyone can walk in and find amazing deals on designer handbangs and a big selection of anklets for $15 and cuff bracelets for $20.
Across the street from Bopha’s, push through the crowds at Bangkok Market (179 Chelmsford St.) and see just how far you can stretch a dollar. A favorite stop for local chefs and foodies alike, this is a great market for scoring a wide variety of imported curry, fish and soy sauces, fiery Sriracha, dried seaweed, fresh lemongrass, bulk bags of rice, an amazing selection of noodles and the ultimate savings on produce — like seven limes for $1.
Take a break and get pampered at the So Sopheak Beauty Salon (248 Middlesex St.) with a manicure and oh-so-relaxing pedicure. Besides a team of expert stylists — seriously, here you’ll get a killer blow-out that’s red carpet worthy — this salon is also popular for eyelash extensions that give lush, never-ending lashes in the vein of Zooey Deschanel.
Refuel with our favorite nosh on a budget at Hong Cuc deli. This Vietnamese sandwich shop has a brand new cafe in the heart of Cambodia Town (11 Grand St.). Known far and wide for the most amazing banh mi (fresh-baked Vietnamese baguette) in the Merrimack Valley, Hong Cuc’s picnic lunch style sandwiches are addictive and big on flavor with fillings like slow-cooked barbecue pork, deli meats, cilantro and special sauce. And the creative drink bar is loaded with options like the aloe juice and mango bubble drink, or fresh kiwi slush.
Catch up on news about the Cambodian community in Lowell and beyond with a free copy of the Khmer Post USA. Roger Pin, a veteran Cambodian journalist and crusader for a free Cambodian press, launched the bi-weekly paper in Philadelphia in 2008 with his wife, Soben. Roger was the only Cambodian journalist to interview the dictator Pol Pot prior to Pot’s death. Pot was the architect of the genocide that killed millions of Cambodians in the 1970s, including Roger’s family. During the interview, Roger’s questions made Pot cry. In 2010, the Khmer Post made its debut in Lowell, where it was so well received the Pins moved the publication’s headquarters to 45 Merrimack St. The paper is available at several Cambodian businesses and markets and can be found online at www.khmerpost.us
Watch great minds mulling over their next chess move, get in on the action of a pick-up volley ball game or simply soak up some sun at Clemente Park (823 Middlesex St.) In the heart of Cambodia Town, this popular recreation area is also a hot spot for Southeast Asian vendors selling yummy snacks like homemade egg rolls and dumplings.
Need to grab some supplies on the go? Swing by K Pharmacy (280 Westford St.). In an age where independent full-service drug stores have been swallowed up by corporate giants, sisters Callie Pau, Helena Lee and Celine Ear arrived on the scene in December 2013 to resurrect the old-school style of your friendly neighborhood mom-and-pop shop. The daughters of Cambodian immigrant parents wanted to use their education and skills to give back to the community. Their bright and organized store meets the needs of the neighborhood in providing everything from cough drops to prescriptions, with a smile.
Delicious food options are endless. For more no-fail restaurant destinations, add Heng Lay (153 Liberty St.) to your list. If it’s your first time delving into Cambodian cuisine, you simply cannot go wrong with Beef Loc Lac. This steak-tip salad kicked up a notch features beef expertly marinated in a savory lime and pepper sauce, and served over a bed of fried rice, fresh lettuce, plump tomatoes, sweet purple onions and crisp cucumbers. We’d also be leading you astray if we didn’t steer you toward Senmonorom (1671 Middlesex St.), which serves up an unmistakably delicious Yao Hon (hot pot), a dish made for sharing with generous portions of meat, veggies and noodles. Finally, The Red Rose restaurant (716 Middlesex St.) makes an amazing Tilapia with Mangoes — a whole piece of tender, flaky fish smothered in mangoes, cilantro, tomatoes and pineapple.
Feast your eyes on endless offerings to go at the Pailin Rose Market (716 Middlesex St.), where you can snatch up single servings of banana rice pudding, coconut custard and fried dough dipped in sugar. The largest Southeast Asian market in the city, you’ll also stumble across row after row of neatly organized imported spices and delicacies including prahok, a fermented fish paste that’s a staple in Cambodian cooking, crispy fried duck and fresh baby clams. There’s also plenty of weird and wonderful offerings like tuna eyeballs and pig snouts, along with a cornucopia of exotic produce that can take any stir fry to the next level of amazing. The seafood room is also stocked with a variety of whole fish packed on ice, claw-waving crabs and prawns.
Connect to Cambodia’s past with the Angkor Dance Troupe. Formed in Lowell in 1984 by Khmer Rouge survivor, Tim Thou, the dance troupe has gained world admiration and recognition for preserving Cambodia’s past through the art of dance and theater. www.angkordance.org
Eat up more culture with the moody art of Flying Orb Productions, founded by Jim Higgins with original cast members Monica Veth and Sophy Leng—both of Angkor Dance Troupe. Flying Orb creates the look of gritty and glamorous film noir with a Southeast Asian cast and a Canon D5. The result is Kismet 91, a beautiful film filled with long, mysterious Hitchcockian shadows thanks to a labor-intensive stop-motion technique. Part of Higgins‘ Dark City series, which also includes a live performance and graphic novel, the director describes the film as “an upside down Wizard of Oz,” when the main character finds himself in the Dark City and the landscape flips from color to black and white. www.flyingorb.com
Finally, cap things off with drinks at a great date spot. Get cozy in Thepthida Khmer (115 Chelmsford St.) Its romantic, dim lighting entices you to stay for another round. Keep your wits about you by sharing a dish like butternut catfish curry with pineapple fried rice, and top it off all with off with ginger fried ice cream.