A Culinary Odyssey in Revere
Floating Rock, a seemingly nondescript Cambodian restaurant, is just this type of place. Located in uninspiring Revere Beach, a short ride up the blue line, Floating Rock is a true hole-in-the-wall. The single room features Formica tabletops and little in the way of decor, though loud Cambodian pop music sets a certain atmosphere. Whatever is lacking in ambiance, however, the restaurant more than compensates for with the menu. The food is so alive, so bursting with flavor, that all else is forgiven. Eating at Floating Rock is a strange and wonderful journey into a cuisine that is rarely found on these shores.
Owner Kim Muy arrived from Phnom Penh only four years ago. Although she speaks no English, she oversees a coterie of family and friends who cook the recipes imported from her homeland. Soon after joining her five children in America, she was serving authentic home cooking to the Boston-area Khmer community, the second largest in the world outside Cambodia. Concentrated in Lynn, Lowell and Revere, the population numbering between 40,000 and 50,000 is manifested by the Khmer food markets and jewelry shops that line the streets. Kim’s son estimates that the restaurant draws a clientele that is 90 percent Cambodian. It is a place where recent immigrants can eat the food that reminds them of home. This means one thing: prahok.
Prahok, a salted, fermented fish paste, is the main ingredient in Khmer cooking, lending its pungent and musky taste to nearly every dish. Its strong aroma permeates the room at Floating Rock, but prahok’s bark is worse than its bite; the smell and taste is familiar to anyone who’s eaten the fish sauce-laden cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam. Much like these cuisines, Cambodian food uses an abundance of aromatic herbs for vibrant flavor, fresh chiles for heat and spices for complexity. Dishes are often augmented with a pinch of sugar, supplying a characteristic sweet and sour taste. But it is the distinctive prahok that gives Cambodian food such a unique flavor. And if you can get past the smell, which is often likened to a ripe cheese, the taste is actually rather mild.
At Floating Rock the menu is only a vague guide—items are written in Khmer script and accompanied by simple English descriptions that barely indicate the contents of a dish. Ordering often results in surprise, but the staff will helpfully translate the daily specials, explain how foods are prepared and suggest particular items. The liberal use of fresh chiles leaves a gentle tingling sensation on the tongue, but never sends a diner madly scrambling for water. And because everything is cooked to order, seasoning levels can be adjusted for personal preference. However, spicing is best left to the chefs, who delicately balance flavors amongst saltiness, sweetness, sourness and bitterness, a hallmark of any good Cambodian meal.
Tiger Tears with Spicy Sauce is an extraordinary dish. Small pieces of beef are tangled with mint, three types of fresh chiles, scallions, lime juice and copious amounts of slivered lemongrass that add a tangy brightness to the meat. Tossed with ground rice (dry-fried until golden, then crushed into small bits), each bite is a study in textures. It’s irresistible and impossible to stop eating. Laap, a special that often appears on the ever-changing specials board, is similar in taste, but here the beef is minced, not sliced, and saw-tooth herb, whose taste resembles that of the more familiar cilantro, is added. Squid Salad is also quite refreshing, a Cambodian version of ceviche, in which barely cooked pieces of seafood are scored and mixed with onions, peanuts, green chiles and whole sprigs of herbs. Cambodian Pad Thai seems like a misnomer and in fact bears no resemblance to the fried dish found in every Thai restaurant. The name is simply an indication to non-Cambodians that it is made with vermicelli noodles. Here, the steamed noodles are formed into a disk and served atop a pile of bean sprouts and thinly sliced cucumbers. A mound of crunchy, salty dried shrimp shrouds the top and hard-boiled eggs ring the plate. This very traditional dish was the one I kept reaching for over and over throughout, a perfect salve for the highly spiced seasonings of Khmer cuisine. Cooling drinks like iced coffee with condensed milk, limeade and egg soda are also perfect foils to the cuisine.
Soup is an essential component of every Cambodian meal. The Duck Curry Soup, another untranslated daily special, was bright yellow with turmeric. The duck was left on the bone, attached to fat and gristle, which, while tasty, was an unappealing sight. Long strands of a spicy, lemony herb packed the bowl, one of the many ingredients at Floating Rock that have no English name. Fresh bamboo shoots are rare, but here they are peeled into sheets and featured in a soup with the ubiquitous green chiles and fresh baby vegetables. Uniquely Cambodian products come from Florida, where the weather is similar to Cambodia, or from Lowell, where the city has given plots of land to the Khmer to grow native produce and herbs.
Fried dishes are marvelous too. Red-lacquered quail, with legs no bigger than a pinky, were succulent dipped in lime juice and plain fried fish was of the utmost freshness, accompanied by a bracing salad of green mango.
Floating Rock rewards the adventurous eater—Frog Legs with Spices was the richest dish we tried, cooked in a paste of blended spices and peppers. But for a true taste of Cambodia, go for prahok in all its forms. Long Bean Salad, with crisp beans and heavy use of fermented fish, is one of the most unusually flavored things I’ve ever eaten and quickly becomes addictive. For Cambodian comfort food at its best, Prahok with Coconut Milk, a concoction used as a dip for fresh vegetables, is absolutely unforgettable. The smell may take some getting used to, but the salty, spicy, milky taste is astonishing.
The menu is extensive–over one hundred items of fertile territory just waiting to be explored. I urge you to run to Revere and place yourself in the skilled hands of Mrs. Muy. Enter the secret underworld of the food-obsessed who will happily brave a fifty minute T ride for food of this caliber. And then, you too, will be initiated into the foodie fellowship where deliciousness is sought with no regard to life, limb or decor. It’s a dangerous game, but somebody’s got to play it.