Little La Lune is located on an unpretty part of Pacific Coast Highway, in a strip mall with less than 10 parking spots—and they're all taken. But stay in your car and wait with the air conditioning on, and soon, a few people will exit the restaurant, toothpicks in mouths, rubbing their bellies. Take their space; it's your turn. The noodle soup is what you're here to eat, what made you drive all the way from OC. Specifically, it's the Phnom Penh noodle, in which strands of rice noodle similar to your last bowl of pho swim in a clear pork broth as sweet as The Simpsons' glory years.
This kind of broth is the lifeblood of Cambodia Town. The elixir is coaxed by slowly simmering pork bones until they surrender all of their goodness. Every slurp from the steaming bowl unveils layers of flavor—shades of sugar, the tang of fish sauce, a hit of white pepper, all of it within the embrace of pig. It's not an exaggeration to say the rich liquid is a meal unto itself, even if it's as clear as consommé. Some cilantro, fried bits of garlic and the lime juice you squeezed into it give it balance. The rest of the bowl becomes extra credit. There's a piece of liver, a lean slice of pork and some shrimp, but it's all about the interplay of noodle and broth—and the steam bath your face gets when you inhale the soft strands between the hot gulps of soup.
Some people choose to order the noodle dry. But they also get a side bowl of that broth, often with a hunk of bone straight from the pot; the meat stuck on the sides can be chipped off little by little. In fact, order any rice dish, and you're given some of this wonder broth for free. Also on the house: the iced tea, a slightly sweetened amber drink whose taste falls somewhere between Lipton and chrysanthemum. Everyone in the restaurant has a glass in front of them, and the servers refill them constantly from a sweaty pitcher.
Another thing you notice on every table: the cha-kwai, deep-fried dough sticks that resemble golden femurs. They're a buck each, and you should order one, even if you don't intend to cut it up to put in your soup, which is what you're supposed to do. As your teeth breach the slightly oily but feather-light crust, you remember how these coveted items run out by noontime at Trieu Chau in Santa Ana, the last place you had Phnom Penh noodles. Here at Little La Lune, it's supplied all day long and fried so fresh they can't be handled for the better part of a minute.
Little La Lune's second most popular dish seems to be the Beef Lok Lak, which sounds and looks like what the Vietnamese call bó luc lac. It's even served atop shaved onions and comes with raw tomatoes and a saucer of salt, pepper and lime with which to make a dipping slurry. But the dish is, in fact, something different. In this version, golden-fried bits of garlic coat so much of the seared beef cubes they're almost breading.
Another beef dish exists on the salad list, but since it's essentially a big fat steak, it's also the most expensive thing on the menu at close to $15. You order it and wonder why it's called “Beef Anchovies” since no anchovies are visibly present. When you ask, your server will tell you the anchovies are mashed and pulverized with lime juice and seasonings to make the salad dressing—an easier version of prahok, the traditional Cambodian dipping sauce made from fermented fish paste. The salad is composed of sliced shallots, thin slices of raw Thai eggplant, and black olives and pickled jalapeños straight out of the nachos found at movie-theater concession stands. And it's great, a little funky, as complex as Khmer culture itself, and it complements the tender and juicy grilled steak in a way A1 never could. Eat it with plain rice alongside an order of sautéed Chinese watercress that has the option of being cooked with crispy, deep-fried pieces of pork belly, which you should agree to on principle.
The only oddity: Little La Lune, as with other Cambodian places along PCH such as Sophy's, bills itself as Cambodian and Thai. Try the Student Noodle instead of the pad Thai, and even the most finicky eater can't tell the difference between them. Whatever. Once you're done with the gluttony, rub your belly and surrender your parking spot to that poor soul outside who's still waiting for a spot.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.