Munch goes to Apsara Cafe

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In my salad days here as an aspiring ink-stained glory hound, a gravel-voiced, straight-from-central casting editor type, who smoked Camel unfiltereds and had all the charm of Dennis Franz on "NYPD Blue," gave me an old-fashioned dose of self-esteem.

"Get over yourself, kid," he barked. "The only person who cares about your byline is your mom, and even she doesn't notice half the time."

He was right. Most people don't care. Not for a while, anyway. Because it's a full four months after the launch of Munch 2.0 -- with bylines! -- and we're only now getting emails demanding to know the identities of these impostors claiming to be Munch.

Well, it's the same four boobs that have been doing it for years. But the cranks aren't buying it. Conspiracy theories are building. Alex Jones calls us a "False Bag." Orly Taitz started a Muncher movement. Wayne LaPierre says we're a cabal bent on taking away your semiautomatic knives and forks.

So depending on who you believe, Munch either was, or was not at Apsara Cafe on the South Side recently, wolfing down some pretty good Southeast Asian cuisine from "Bo" Meng and family, who have brought Thai and Cambodian tastes to Pittsburgh for nearly 20 years, previously with Phnom Penh and the Lemongrass Cafe, Downtown, and for more than a decade with Angkor on Noblestown Road in the city's tiny Oakwood neighborhood near Green Tree.

The BYOB Apsara takes over a gorgeous Victorian building typical of East Carson Street. The interior is a clean, soothing setting of seafoam greens with Asian flourishes, and drawings, paintings and sculptures of the Apsara, which according to Far Eastern mythology is a supernatural female spirit that is youthful, elegant and superb in the art of dancing.

Soups, salads and staples like Pad Thai, Red and Green Curries, and Panang are featured along with items like the spicy house specialty -- Moarn Chha Kroeung (the Original Khmer Dish) -- made of fresh, crispy broccoli, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, onions, snow peas, red and green peppers and water chestnuts in a lemongrass sauce with some nice sized shrimp ($13.95).

Another house trademark is the Kuteiv Chha (Phnom Penh) -- flat wheat flour noodles sauteed with Chinese broccoli leaves, fresh bean sprouts, eggs and scallions in a Phnom Penh sauce with pork ($11.95).

On a recent trip we tried an order of the Na-Taings ($6.95), an interesting Cambodian snack that is quite literally like Rice Krispies treats, except topped with a savory sauce made from ground pork, roasted shallot, garlic, peanut and creamy coconut.

I also tried the Prik King, a dish of crispy fresh green beans and chicken in a potentially blazing garlic chili paste ($11.95).

The two dozen hot and spicy dishes are served on a scale from an emasculating one to a face-melting 10. I got mine at level eight -- the point where that weird feeling of delicious discomfort begins -- eyes water, sweat beads around them, sinuses clear -- but you can't stop eating. I loved it. I can only imagine level nine gives a full-on schvitz and that throbbing sensation in your eardrums. Level 10 shouldn't be attempted without a Nexium on hand.

The Chicken Lemongrass "Larb" Salad ($7.95) got a tepid response from a friend who thought the meat should have been "super minced" and wasn't quite that, although she seemed otherwise pleased with the experience.

My significant other enjoyed the Samlor Ktiss Manors -- or spare ribs -- which are braised and simmered in a delicious red curry and tomato paste and seasoned with lemon grass, galangal, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, cloves, roasted garlic and shallot in a creamy coconut milk ($14.95).

Service is polite if a little uneven at times -- and some things were quite literally lost in translation. But this is good, fresh, well prepared and reasonably priced food, and you can believe that regardless of the name that is on the byline.


Apsara Cafe is at 1703 E. Carson St., South Side; 412-255-0664 or apsaracafe.com.

munch@post-gazette.com or Twitter @ PGMunch. Become a Facebook Friend of Munch at www.facebook.com/munchPG.

munch


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