"Num pang is Cambodian; banh mi is Vietnamese. They were both colonized by the French, hence the baguette."
Ratha Chau is the chef and owner of Kampuchea, one of the only, if not the only, Cambodian restaurants in the city. Back in the fall he announced his plans to open a new spot focusing on just one element of the Kampuchea menu--the sandwiches.
Now, along with his partner, chef Scott Burnett, and co-owner Ben Daitz, Chau has made his vision come to life in a tiny storefront on 12th Street. The place has been mobbed since day one, with eager patrons waiting for a rotating selection of six to eight sandwiches including classics from the Kampuchea menu and new sandwiches designed specifically for Num Pang. Chau took a quick break from serving over 500 sandwiches a day to answer some of our questions.
Name: Ratha Chau
Location: Greenwich Village
Occupation: Chef and owner, Num Pang
Congratulations on your new place! Tell us a little about how Num Pang came to be. We decided to open Num Pang because the sandwiches were so popular on the menu at Kampuchea. We knew it would be an instant hit.
Are you working in both Num Pang and Kampuchea right now? How's that? Yes! It's really fun, but tiring. No complaints though!
We noticed that you designed Num Pang with an open kitchen, much like your other restaurant, Kampuchea. Does that mean you prefer cooking with an audience? Not really. I like to cook in an open space and I like when people can see what they're getting, but the audience is a nice perk.
You've had lines out the door since you've opened--why do you think people are so crazy about your place? Sandwiches are really big right now and ours use really high quality fresh ingredients. I think people like being able to afford a gourmet product in this economy.
How is a num pang different from (or similar to) a banh mi? Num pang is Cambodian; banh mi is Vietnamese. They were both colonized by the French, hence the baguette, but the flavors of the num pang take their roots in Cambodian cuisine, not Vietnamese.
What are traditional Cambodian ingredients and techniques?Prahok, which is a fermented fish, shrimp paste, fermented shrimp, and tons of herbs. In terms of style there's always sweet and sour and a little saltiness. There's a lot of spiciness from fresh peppers, instead of cooked, and a lot of sauces, sprouts, fresh vegetables.
Where do you get your bread and other sandwich components? Can you recommend some stores for Serious Eaters to get their hands on Cambodian ingredients? We get our bread from Parisi Bakery (198 Mott Street; map) and we get as many ingredients as possible from local farmers' markets. I always go to Chinatown to find my favorite Cambodian ingredients like fish sauce and prahok. I also go there to get fresh lemongrass and Thai eggplant.
When will delivery start? In the near future. [Editorial note: We are eagerly awaiting this!!!]
Is there anything else you have planned for the future, at Num Pang or elsewhere? There are a few things in the works but nothing I'm ready to divulge.
Any plans for your next day off if you have one in the not-too-distant future? Sleeping and spending time with my son.
Other than your own sandwiches, do you have any favorites in the city? It's not technically a sandwich, but there's a great hot dog stand on Lafayette and Spring Street that I like to go to.
Best pizza in the city? I don't really eat pizza--sorry.
Favorite burger? I love Goodburger.
Favorite bagel? I don't like bagels--sorry again.
Best late-night eats? I love to go to Tomoe for Japanese food.
Guilty pleasures? The flourless chocolate cookies at Whole Foods.
Food you won't eat? Monkey brains.
Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant recommendations. Who's yours? The Supertasters, of course--AKA my PR company, Gita Group.
What's the best recommendation they have given you? They introduced me to Jean-Michel Bergougnoux at L'Absinthe Brasserie on the Upper East Side. We like to swap recipes.
21 East 12th Street (nr. University Place; map); 212-255-3271
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