Restaurant review: West Side’s Siem Reap

By Columbus Alive
From the March 21, 2013 edition

Here’s my fortune cookie thought for the day: After you read ’em and weep, cheer yourself up at Siem Reap.

Nearly hidden in the shadow of the gargantuan Hollywood Casino lies cute little Siem Reap, a friendly, clean and terrific southeast Asian eatery named after a city in Cambodia historically linked with Thailand (“Siem” refers to “Siam,” which is synonymous with Thailand). So it’s not so surprising that Siem Reap’s menu contains Cambodian favorites along with dishes more associated with Thailand — and Vietnam too, for that matter. And they’re all damn good.

As with any style of cooking, if you know your way around a few classics, you’ll sorta know what to expect. But Siem Reap accommodates novices uncommonly well because excellent “American” is spoken there and its wide-ranging yet manageably sized menu contains plenty of illustrative photographs.

Also accommodating is Siem’s digs. While far from fancy, Siem’s not a bare and barebones kind of mom-n-popper. It’s awash in tropical-hinting colors from the orange, gold and pale cantaloupe side of the spectrum. Ethnically appropriate knick-knacks, bamboo plants and village scene depictions add more sprinklings of interest.

So does alcohol service. You might start — and/or finish with — an OK, punch-like Mai Tai, or, even better, a not-too-sweet Lychee Martini that convincingly tastes like the fruit it’s named for (both cocktails are $10). Either way, I recommend tugging on Singha Thai beers throughout your meal.

Said meal will begin with a neat — and free to everyone — slaw-ish daikon radish and unripe papaya salad enriched with toasty fried peanuts. After that, you gotta go with Siem’s almost-famous and definitely unique and delicious Stuffed Chicken wings ($8.25).

My waitress recommended the Beef Skewers too (aka satay, $8.25) and I liked that quartet’s soy, chili-kissed and chargrilled flavors, even if bites were alternately tender and gristly. Still-gurgling bowls of semi-DIY soup are popular, too. The serves three-or-more-huge Simply Hot Pot ($13) arrived scalding hot atop a portable burner, and its peppery and garlicky, clear and clean-flavored chicken-y broth was a subtle and lovely vehicle for shrimp, cuttlefish, quail eggs, pink-rimmed sliced gentle fishcakes, shiitakes, cabbages, onions, cilantro and so forth.

Not up for pot-tending? Then target the also excellent Combination Noodle Soup ($9), whose remarkably tender beef curls and vibrant, beautiful broth make it a strong contender for top pho in Columbus.

The fresh, refreshing and gigantic Larb ($7) looked (and sounded) to be made of hand-chopped, not ground, chicken. That Thai basil, mint leaf, celery, romaine (for “taco”-rolling) and red pepper-scattered eye-popper offered distinctly delicate and crisp flavors from warm poultry, fish sauce, chili and considerably less citrus than what you usually get.

Far more forceful was the surprising — and delicious! — Lemongrass Chicken ($9). Featuring a feathery appearance and texture from shredded lemongrass, it was an intensely aromatic (cilantro, lemongrass, fish sauce) and explosively spicy (jalapenos) “un-sauced” diced dark meat stir-fry I find myself craving regularly.

Ditto for the tropical knockout aptly named (as in you’ll ecstatically run) A Mok ($9). Served in the smallish, banana leaf-lined loaf pan in which they’d been steamed were fall-apart fish chunks (allegedly “snakehead”) and veggies swamped in a spicy, sweet and custardy-rich coconut milk curry sauce fragrant with heady Southeast Asian accents.

After that enlightenment, I concocted my aforementioned fortune cookie wisdom while sucking on the (thankfully barely) durian-flavored teeny postprandial hard candy Siem Reap treated me to.

Photos by Tim Johnson