Num Pang, 21 E 12th St
For all the fans of Cambodian cuisine in New York, your options have
been limited. Very limited — Kampuchea was the only game in town. But
chef-owner Ratha Chau has heard your yearning and complied by opening
another restaurant near Union Square. While Kampuchea is a proper
restaurant — with table service, signature cocktails and large windows
facing the street to create an airy space and envy from passers-by —
the new place, Num Pang, is a sidewalk sandwich counter with stools in
a dark graffiti’d room upstairs.
While Kampuchea serves a variety of excellent small plates and noodle
soups in addition to the sandwiches, those are the major triumphs of
the restaurant. Num Pang focuses on the sandwiches — and the
justifiably adored grilled corn, slathered with heady chili powder,
coconut flakes and siracha mayo. The sandwiches themselves are close
cousins to the Vietnamese bahn mi, utilizing the same style (but of
higher quality, from Parisi Bakery) of soft mini baguette. And the
sandwich menus are virtually identical — except for the price (and the
headcheese terrine at Kampuchea, which I’m guessing they did not think
would appeal to 19-year-old NYU students).
One specialty, the meltingly tender pulled duroc pork with spiced
honey — and the accoutrements shared by all sandwiches: cucumber,
pickled carrot, cilantro and chili mayo — is $7.50 at Num Pang vs.
$12+tax and tip at Kampuchea, and what it may lack in polish and
presentation, it makes up for in a heavy hand by the line cooks.
Hoisin veal meatballs ($6.75, $12) with stewed tomatoes is an
East-meets-West treat for those who still eat veal, and are somehow
the worst thing on the menu. Everything, from seasonal choices like
chicken liver pate and pickled ramps or five-spiced pork belly to
coconut tiger shrimp or skirt steak.
The bread/filling, sweet/hot/spicy/bitter/rich, soft/crunchy, hot/cold
are spot on in every sandwich from both joints, so what more could one
ask for? Beer, for one, at Num Pang, or a dining room that you don’t
feel compelled to flee, but that’s a small sacrifice — no sacrifice if
you do takeout. Now that Kampuchea is the fine-dining part of Chef
Chau’s nuevo-Cambodian empire, it’s time to ditch the communal tables
— somehow a $13 roasted cauliflower sandwich seems kinda exorbitant
when an identical one is $6.75 a mile to the northwest. Yet everything
I’ve tried — from either restaurant — has been homey and decadent, and
decidedly unlike anything I ate while actually in Cambodia. Never even
saw a sandwich.