This modest little building probably started life as a corner grocery, but for several years it's been home to one Korean restaurant after another, with varying degrees of success in the cooking, but always with rather dark, gloomy interiors. Not any more. Not since it re-opened as Thai Bochi.
These days, sunlight streams through the big, now unblocked windows, and the pristine white walls are adorned with hand-painted fans, lacquered plaques embellished by mother-of-pearl, rubbings of some carvings and a huge photograph of Cambodian dancers. There are a few spectacular fresh orchid plants, and even the imitation orchids on the black-lacquered tables are attractive. It's one of the most charming of the city's Southeast Asian restaurants, and not least among its attractions is the wonderful, smiling welcome by the husband-and-wife owners -- he cooks and she serves, aided by their son, when he isn't at his university studies.
The bulk of the menu reads like many Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese menus, of which the city has no shortage. What makes Thai Bochi of special interest are the Cambodian dishes -- a first for most of us. But even some of the other dishes had special Cambodian touches, like the Kampot peppercorns, for instance, which are said to be among the world's best, and black pepper is the spice that zaps up some of the dishes, among them the fried rice that would have seemed purely Chinese if it weren't for that distinctive peppery bite.
Which isn't to say that chili peppers aren't also used. All our dishes, ordered medium, had a nice, bearable warmth (less heat than medium in most Thai restaurants), but beware the little red and green rings of what we were told were jalapenos that turn up in some dishes, but are more incendiary than any jalapenos I've known. I bit into one by accident; even after my eyes had stopped tearing, my tongue was suffering real pain.
But there was no pain in our starters, just pure enjoyment. The crackling-crisp spring rolls were great, with a pork and veggie filling that was tastier and moister than most (two for $2.99; a vegetarian version is available at the same price). The Thai fish cakes were equally impressive -- patties of fish pounded to a paste, but not rubbery like so many others. These were so much moister and lighter, seasoned with the barest hint of lime, and served with a dip of nam pla-based sweet chili sauce.
The menu is short, the prices a steal ($6.99 to $9.99) and the portions copious. Of the 70 listed items, 31 involve noodles -- whether in soups, stews or stir-fries, and most of the others come with rice -- steamed or (for $1 more) fried. And although our shrimp pad Thai may or may not have been Cambodian, it was still one of the better pad Thais of my experience -- not in the least gummy, with a delicate flavour that can be enhanced, if wished, by a few splashes of the sweet-tart chili sauce. A Thai red curry with chicken was another good choice.
It takes a while to get to the specifically Cambodian dishes, which are listed under House Specials at the end of the menu. There aren't all that many of them, but most of those I tried were delicious. The grilled marinated chicken is a standout, crisp, slightly sweet and explosively flavourful little slices, to be dipped in a seasoned broth. Similarly prepared pork chops, cut thin across the bone, are less sweet but also good. Another top favourite was sour beef stew, with a complex flavour that was tangy with tamarind and faint undertones of galanga, lime and lemon grass. Lok lak khmer -- stewed cubes of garlicky marinated beef, nestled within a circle of thin-sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots -- was pretty as well as good, if tamer in flavour.
Many ethnic cooks will trot out their best for those who show a genuine interest in their cuisine. Our curiosity about other possible Cambodian dishes led us to a conversation with the cook, who then made a dish for us that wasn't on the menu -- tender little pork riblets in a brownish sauce aromatic with lemongrass.
There are several soups which, judging by their descriptions, might have been phos. I didn't try them, or (which I now regret) the Battambong style noodle soup either -- with pork liver, kidney, pork patties, ground pork and sliced pork. (Next time, I promise myself.)
However I did have the special wonton soup, a delicate beef broth sparked by the flavour of deep-fried onion bits, and crammed with egg noodles, shrimp, wontons (some with shrimp filling, some with pork) and assorted veggies. Flat rice noodles with tender slices of beef and gai lan might have been listed as chow fun on a Chinese menu, but its peppery seasoning gave it a Cambodian bite. The spiciest item I had was the Cambodian fried vermicelli, which tasted pretty much like Singapore vermicelli.
For dessert, a deep-fried banana in an egg roll wrapping topped with ice cream was nice ($4.50) -- also available grilled in a sticky rice coating ($3.99). But for something lighter and delightful, have the ice cream with palm seeds -- chewy, jelly-like fruits that were new to me and absolutely delicious ($2.99). The warm, attentive service couldn't have been better, and there's two hours of free and easy street parking.
Closed Sunday and Monday.