A passport to the Far East
115 Chelmsford St., Lowell
Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m., except Tuesdays
Reservations and all major credit cards accepted
Not accessible to the handicapped (no ramp up to door)
Dishes available for takeout orders
With the economy in flux, few of us can afford the luxury of international travel. Luckily, Tepthida Khmer in Lowell provides a passport to the Far East right in Boston's own backyard - at prices that won't leave you breathless.
This cozy restaurant in Lowell offers a range of southeast Asian dishes in an classy, urban setting. Though it's located on a busy thoroughfare, step inside Tepthida Khmer and the rush melts away. Wood paneling, crisp white linens, and touches of southeast Asian art provide a calm dining venue.
Tepthida Khmer's menu is comprehensive, including salads, seafood dishes, meat and poultry options, as well as several choices for vegetarians. Many of the dishes are traditionally Cambodian, but diners will also find nods to Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.
My first visit to Tepthida Khmer began with summer rolls ($6). Admittedly, this was a wistful attempt to ignore the imminent New England freeze - and the rolls did not disappoint. Bursting with fresh shrimp, basil, bean sprouts, mint, and lettuce, this appetizer called to mind warmer climes and delicious summer produce. The sach ko ang ($6), or beef skewers, was another tasty starter with hints of garlic and lemongrass, though the beef could have been more tender.
My dining partner and I enjoyed the side dish of julienned carrot and papaya salad, a sweet complement to this savory dish. Those looking to try an unusual appetizer should order natang ($6), a pork, shallot, lemongrass, and pepper curry spooned over rice cakes. The crunchy cakes held up well to the rich sauce, whetting my appetite without overwhelming the palate.
From lemongrass to chili, pepper to coconut milk, the entrées at Tepthida Khmer echo with the tastes and smells of southeast Asia. Many of the spicy dishes are toned down to suit Western palates, so be sure to tell the waiter if you're looking for an extra kick. All the main dishes are large, so some diners will want to share.
Of the entrées I tried, cha greung ($10), a beef stir-fry with lime leaves, lemongrass, and turmeric, stood out for its tender beef, flavorful peppers, and perfectly cooked green beans. I also enjoyed nhoim speikdaob ($10), a chopped cabbage salad loaded with chicken, spicy peanuts, onions, and green peppers. The only disappointment was an excess of the tangy lime dressing.
The chicken curry ($10) was flavorful, but we found the sauce a little on the watery side. We had great expectations for the mee siem ($8), a serving of rice noodles, tofu, and chicken breast, tossed with chili, garlic, shallots, red bell peppers, chives, and bean sprouts. Unfortunately the dish was too oily for us to eat more than a few bites.
Far better was the beef loc lac ($10), cubes of tenderloin beef sautéed and caramelized in a black pepper, garlic, and mushroom soy sauce. The beef was crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, with just enough pepper to cut through the sweetness.
Those looking for a unique Cambodian taste can try one of several dishes made with prahoc, or fish paste. Prahoc is notoriously pungent, so first-timers may want to ask their server for a toned-down version. I found the wait staff helpful, honest, and willing to accommodate special requests, as they are eager for patrons to enjoy Cambodian cuisine.
Like many Asian restaurants, Tepthida Khmer offers just a few options for dessert. Skip the fried ice cream ($4) in favor of sangyha by domnep ($4), sticky rice topped with durian pudding. The durian fruit, native to southeast Asia, has an unusual taste that divides eaters firmly into two camps: You either love it or you hate it. I fall on the former side, enjoying its creamy texture and slightly bitter, almond aftertaste. The pudding was smooth and light, with a touch of coconut milk.
Tepthida Khmer has been open for a little over a year, but it seems as though few diners have yet to discover this restaurant's charm. At my most recent visit I learned the Cambodian owner has plans to change the menu in the coming months, adding French touches to give the place a fusion feel. Let's hope the developments don't come at the expense of Tepthida Khmer's vibrant southeast Asian dishes.