Khmer-style fried noodles come topped with a perfectly runny fried egg.
Before my first visit to Angkor Wat, the new Cambodian restaurant on South Park Street, I did a bit of online reconnaissance to prepare. I don’t rely on sites like Yelp for guidance when writing about a restaurant — you can’t believe everything you read on the internet! — but sometimes it’s helpful to get a feel for what people are saying about a place.
Right away I noticed something interesting. “I think Angkor Wat ‘deserves’ two stars based on my experience today, but I’m rooting for them, so I’m bumping up to a [three],” one kindly Yelper wrote. Another sympathetic soul agreed. “[T]his is a modestly inflated [three] star rating as I really want this brand-new place to get better.” This unusual display of generosity made me curious. Would Angkor Wat prove to be an unpolished gem?
The answer to that question depends on the day. In fact, the spectrum of experiences one can have at Angkor Wat is almost impressive in its broadness — some dishes are unforgivably bland, while others are quite good. Service can range from hilariously bad to knowledgeable and attentive.
Angkor Wat opened in mid-October at 602 S. Park St. in the former home of Inka Heritage. The restaurant, which specializes in Khmer (Cambodian) and Thai cuisine, closed down for a week amid a staffing shakeup and reopened in early November. Owner Thao Nuon was born in Cambodia but relocated to Madison in 1977 after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime.
The atmosphere of the restaurant is nice enough — white linen tablecloths, cloth napkins, plenty of windows framed by light pink curtains. The menu is expansive — a dozen or so appetizers, a handful of soups, a few curries, several noodle dishes, some clay pot entrees and much more. The restaurant is billed as Cambodian, but most dishes are Thai, though the cuisines are similar.
We start with an order of Thai laab, a type of meat salad that actually originated in Laos. It’s delicious — tender bits of minced beef flavored with lime, fish sauce, cilantro and red chilis. The dish is served cool, but the seasoning makes it satisfyingly sour and fiery hot. I was thankful for the slices of cucumber provided as a chaser. A plate of eight crab rangoons (the apex of Americanized Asian guilty pleasures) is quite tasty but light on crab and served with molten-hot premade sweet-and-sour sauce. Fresh spring rolls are stuffed with shrimp and pork, but the only flavors present are thanks to fresh herbs — mint, basil and cilantro. A side of peanut sauce helps. We also order the fried quail (mostly to see what it looks like) and find that it’s basically a hard-to-eat chicken wing, glazed in a boring brown sauce.
The soups are among the few Cambodian dishes on the menu. A server recommended ba baw, a hot, fragrant bowl of chicken and rice topped with bean sprouts, fried garlic and lime. It was tasty, but rather basic. A more interesting Cambodian dish is bahn xeo, which translates to “sizzling cake.” Two thin rice pancakes, almost the color and consistency of an omelet, are stuffed with ground pork or chicken and served with a side of lettuce, bean sprouts, mint, basil and peanut sauce. A server suggests eating it like a burrito, but the pancake was too delicate — forks and knives were deployed. The meat was slightly dry, but the accoutrements helped immensely.
Khmer-style fried noodles came topped with a perfect runny-yolked fried egg, which added to the richness of the dish, but the fish sauce and lime flavor were underwhelming. A bowl of Vietnamese pho, though heroic in portion, was similarly bland — its thin broth had none of the complexity that the dish is famous for, and the beef flank and meatballs were tough and gristly. But when I reheated it at home and added a squeeze of lime and some hot sauce, it was much better. Pad Thai, usually my favorite, was the biggest disappointment of all — oily, oversauced, devoid of peanuts or any hint of spice.
Quite simply, Angkor Wat comes up short when compared to the established Indochinese restaurants in Madison. But, like the nice people on Yelp, I found myself wanting the family-run business to succeed. With a few menu tweaks and some server training it could be an excellent addition to the South Park Street corridor.
608-422-5666, facebook.com/angkorwat608, $5-$19, 11 am-10 pm Sun.-Thurs., 11 am-11 pm Fri.-Sat.