For all of the city's diversity, the block just south of the Kingsbridge Road station may be the only one in New York where you can find your fufu flour and pho just steps apart. A well-documented but marginal Vietnamese and Cambodian community settled into the surrounding area, giving birth to a culinary scene that briefly captured intrepid New Yorkers' foodie dreams.
Opened eleven years ago, the Phnom Penh-Nha Trang grocer has become a mainstay under the 4 train. In the three years I've been sporadically visiting, it has remained largely unchanged: stocking the same brands of noodles, spices, soup bases, and sauces in the same ragtag space. But it's one of only two or three groceries in the borough that can be counted on as reliable, cheap sources for fresh lemongrass basil, daikon radish, and greens—as well as several traditional Cambodian sweets.
During the weekends, Trang comes alive. Family members and friends become fixtures during the afternoon: unpacking boxes, cleaning vegetables or simply hanging out. Shoppers peruse the shelves to a soundtrack of rapid fire Cambodian and parakeet chirping. Motherly to the core, San, the owner's sister, is particularly helpful. Near the cash register are a few desserts, each homemade (all $1.75). Typically available only on Saturday and Sunday, when business is more brisk, San did offer that these treats are occasionally available on weekdays.
Known more by its Vietnamese name, chè đậu trắng, their "black-eyed pea rice pudding" comes with or without coconut milk. But, San agrees, there's no reason not to share the wealth: without the milk, the pudding is too bland for her tastes. Buffered by the coconut, it glides down your tongue and leaves a lingering but gentle sweetness. The beans are neither too firm nor mushy—as might be expected—adding a pleasantly savory if not unusual component. Spruced up with salt and sugar, the pudding comes in 9-ounce containers for snacking.
Two varieties of sticky rice cakes, each wrapped in the traditional banana leaves, are available as well. More familiar are the logs, which could be mistaken at first glance for the similarly shaped, Chinese Southern-style zong zi. But these are Cambodian to the core, likely a variation on num ansom chek ang ("grilled banana sticky rice cake"). Unraveling the leaves will produce an unmistakably fruity whiff, a hint of what's inside. In a custom spin, black eyed peas are nestled into the sticky rice, which encases a filling of red bean paste littered with chunks of banana. The beans are a little grittier here, but it's the banana that speaks the loudest: sweet, almost like candy.
Shaped like a trapezoid, the second option—I was unable to deduce the treat's name because of San's unfamiliarity with the Roman alphabet—was glistening and supremely sticky. Made from "sticky rice powder and yellow bean," its shell is thinner and chewier. Blander than the others, the yellow bean filling inside speckled and more savory then sweet.
Occasionally, the store also gets small batches of good from nearby Com Tam Ninh Kieu. This past Sunday, they had foiled-wrapped logs of chả lụa available, familiar to San as a popular banh mi filling. If you're a Bronxite looking to bring the flavors of South East Asia into your home, then Phnom Penh-Nha Trang provides a convenient, if limited, resource.
Phnom Penh-Nha Trang
2639 Jerome Ave, Bronx, NY 10468 (map)