Some of the best Asian food in Pittsburgh is available at some of the most modest places: the sidewalk carts and hot trucks that populate the Strip and Oakland. While some of these mobile kitchens are associated with permanent ones elsewhere, our experience has been that the allure of street food is rarely transferable to sit-down restaurants.
Perhaps sensing this, the owners of one of our fair city's best-known food trucks were reluctant to make the jump. When the Cambod-ican truck was forced to relinquish the little vacant lot beside Nakama, where it had served countless South Side revelers, Dan and Moeun McSwiggen tried to find a nearby location to park and re-open it. But this proved impractical, and they ended up moving their Cambodian cooking indoors, to a building they own just a few doors up from their old location.
While the ordering window is a clear throwback to the old days, Cambod-ican's dining room is a pleasant place to sit and eat, surrounded by paintings of Cambodian temples, fields and dancers as well as more random objects: a Looney Tunes figurine, a Halloween candle, a porcelain doll in its box. The overall effect feels as personal as an invitation to the owners' own dining room.
The menu does not appear to have expanded much; it's possible that any or all of the dishes were available at the truck at one time or another. However, a hand-lettered sign dispels any expectation of fast food, promising fresh cooked dishes, made to order and served in due time.
We sipped homemade limeade while we perused the appetizers. A sampler platter let us try almost all of them and was big enough to take the edge off two appetites. The chicken kabob was enormous with tender, moist dark meat that was beautifully charred, releasing both flavor and texture, contrasting with the dark, sweet-spicy "moon" sauce (named in honor of the cook, Moeun). Deep-fried wontons were dark and crisp, with more moon sauce setting off savory beef and succulent ground shrimp in different, complementary ways.
By the time we got to the chicken wing, the moon sauce was starting to weary the palate. The egg roll provided a surprising break: While it looked like the other items, it was scarcely sweet and strongly flavored with aromatic spices like cinnamon. And while the mini shrimp cakes reprised the now-familiar moon flavor, the overall effect was original. A generous mound of shrimp and pork pâté topped a baguette round, and while the menu said it was toasted, it seemed to us that the whole thing was deep-fried, to crispy, juicy effect.
Angelique's curried vegetable bowl was a complete change of pace. Broccoli, onions, green peppers, snow peas and carrots cut into cunning little lightning-bolt shapes accompanied fried tofu (chicken and shrimp are also options) in a sauce which layered sweet, tangy, and, above all, fiery notes. (Whole-grain adherents, take note: This is one of the few Asian restaurants which not only offers brown rice, but actively promotes it.) The portion was so large, we took most of it home, where we found it best on the third day, after the ingredients had had a chance to really marinate in the curry's herbs and spices.
Alas, Jason's Cambod-ican fried noodles were a sauce too far. Featuring the same lovely vegetables and tender beef slices on a bed of fried noodles, the dish was doused with either more moon sauce or a close variation, and Jason's palate cried "enough." Had it not been preceded by several similarly sauced appetizers, we would have had a greater appreciation for the fresh, flavorful combination of ingredients.
In moving from truck to dining room, Cambod-ican has not lost its essential appeal. By sticking with its natural strengths and emphasizing a personal touch, it has actually built on its previous success. Its main flaw overuse of the actually quite good moon sauce is easily remedied by judicious ordering. Those hand-lettered signs requesting patience are not to be taken lightly. But with someplace to sit and a tall glass of fresh-squeezed limeade, the wait is worth it.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars