Chef Hak Lonh helms Gamboge.

Chef Hak Lonh helms Gamboge.

Gamboge is the name of a yellow dye used to color the robes of Buddhist monks in Southeast Asia. It’s also the name of a charming café, bottle shop and market specializing in Cambodian cuisine and natural organic wines on an unlikely strip in Lincoln Heights, just north of Chinatown.  

Owner and chef Hak Lanh and his wife, Jane Oh, opened Gamboge just over a year ago, in the middle of the pandemic. 

“Our hard open was the first week of August, in the heart of the pandemic,” Lanh said.

“We bought the building in 2018. It was just sitting there while I was doing some renovations on the upstairs unit. I was developing the concept (of the restaurant). It took about 18 months to get everything approved and ready to build, with all of the permitting. I was self-funding it, so it took a little bit longer. We just took our time.”

He had a concept to fully engage the building to explore his interests and leverage income. 

“The upstairs space is my test kitchen and incubator. I use it to host other chefs sometimes, to do small events. Or I’ll rent it out for other things, like photo shoots or corporate events, things like that.”

The pandemic inevitably disrupted aspects of the original concept. 

“We wanted a natural wine bar with Cambodian small plates, but the pandemic didn’t allow us to do that. We had to pivot our menu to be more to-go friendly. That’s what we’ve been doing so far, and now we’re trying to pivot again, to reopen the wine bar. It’s still touch and go so far,” Lanh explained.

Lanh’s ongoing adventure on North Broadway is the culmination of a recent career pivot and a much longer journey that started in childhood. A filmmaker by training with a background in commercial television production, Lanh was born in a refugee camp in Thailand before emigrating with his family to Hershey, Pennsylvania, when he was 4 years old. A snapshot from that time is displayed on the Gamboge website, with Lanh and his parents flanked by his three older sisters standing in the snow.

“We were at war with Vietnam, and then the Khmer Rouge came and pushed out Vietnam from Cambodia,” Lanh said. “That’s when the Khmer Rouge was reigning. It was toward the end of the Khmer Rouge takeover when my family escaped. We were sponsored to (go to) Pennsylvania by this church group, and they helped us find work.”

Lanh’s father was placed in a local hotel’s kitchen, and his knowledge of French proved useful. 

“My dad, he started out in the kitchen of the Hotel Hershey,” Lanh said. “I think he was washing dishes there, but he was able to understand French. The executive chef there was Swiss and French. He took a liking to my dad because of his work ethic, and he could speak French. He put my dad into this apprenticeship program. That’s how my dad got into cooking. He rose up from dishwashing to a cook.”

Lanh’s father then opened several Chinese restaurants locally with limited success. Then he acquired a failing beer tavern, realizing the liquor license opened a new revenue stream. 

“He ended up just making some (menu) modifications and was selling cheese steaks and fried rice and subs. It somehow worked,” Lanh said. 

Lanh began working at his father’s restaurants from the age of 5 and left at 22 to pursue a degree in filmmaking at San Francisco’s Academy of the Arts. After an opportunity fizzled working in music video production in New York City, Lanh moved to Los Angeles to pursue work in television. Still, his interest in food never really waned.

“I’ve always had an interest in food because of my mom and my dad,” he said. “But I didn’t get serious about opening my own place until roughly about 10 years ago. I was joking around about it.

“I always thought if my film career wasn’t working out, I could open a business. Plus, I just love food. I was always surrounded by food. I was always cooking. Food was always in my world.

“Toward the end of my film career, in the last five years, I wasn’t fulfilled. I was working mainly in advertising and branded content. I was getting burnt out from that. So, I decided I needed to make a pivot in my career. For me, I wanted something more.”

A friend mentioned the availability of a Lincoln Heights building, and Lanh’s career pivot took a sharper turn. 

“It just happened really fast, where I said, ‘OK, yeah, let me go all in right now.’ I decided it was time to make a move. I wasn’t actively looking to open a restaurant. I still knew I could tell stories through food.”

Lanh’s storytelling should be experienced on-site at the restaurant. Although the menu still reflects the takeout and delivery informed by the pandemic, the selection of dishes is mindful, as is the preparation. 

The card at Gamboge is divided simply between numpang, or “Khmer sandwiches,” of which there are five choices; six entrée choices offering heartier plate specials; and 10 side dishes. Khmer sandwiches are similar to Vietnamese banh mi. Certain aspects of the components and composition can be similar. That said, Lanh is interested in creative departure and uses locally produced, fresh bolillo rolls in place of a more traditional baguette for the sandwiches.

The numpang here feature grilled spicy pork shoulder. After a marinade in lemongrass paste, five spice and chilis, the pork is stuffed into its fresh bolillo with housemade pate, Maggi mayo, chili jam and cucumber. It’s then dressed and topped with crispy toasted shallots, papaya slaw and pickled carrots, a drizzle of scallion oil and a scattering of chopped cilantro. If spicy pork isn’t the preference, swap in grilled lemongrass beef, pulled chicken or trumpet mushrooms. The sandwiches range in price from $10 to $12.

Entrée selections include a grilled short rib plate ($15.50) served over rice with sweet pickles and scallion oil; a spicy pork bowl ($14), using the marinated pork shoulder served on rice with pork floss, roasted peanuts, pickled carrots and papaya slaw; and braised sardines and tomato with baguette ($11.50), with fresh sardines braised in tomato and onions, topped with fried shallots, cilantro and lemon with a fresh mini-baguette for sauce sopping.

Notable side dishes are crab chips ($4); grilled coconut corn ($5.50) with chopped scallions and a coconut glaze; and grilled lemongrass chicken wings ($10) tossed in fish sauce.

There is a short but colorful list of organic wines at Gamboge. Reasonably priced between $28 and $35, they’re selected by Lanh to pair with his dishes. Beer selections typically also include brands from Cambodia, Laos and Korea, when in stock. There are also “market items” for sale here, like The Spicy Mamas’ garlic chili oil ($9); coffee beans from Canyon Coffee ($19-$20); Three Crabs fish sauce ($5.75); and even Kewpie mayo from Japan ($6.75) and Pocky chocolate sticks ($3).

Although Cambodian cuisine and organic wine may seem anomalous on this strip of Broadway in Lincoln Heights, Lanh actively supports the community. 

“To engage with a community ethically, it’s hard,” Lanh said. 

“You really have to do your work, in terms of getting to know the people around you and understanding what their needs are, what they’re looking for, how you’re coming into the neighborhood (and establishing) a level of respect. Our goal is to be something that benefits the neighborhood.” 

Lincoln Heights reminds him of his family’s scrappy beginnings in Pennsylvania. 

“It reminded me of where my parents had their restaurant. It was the intersection of blue collar and white collar. Everyone congregated at my parents’ restaurant. It was harmony. That’s what’s happening here.

“I can be a voice and shine some light on this situation. But it’s hard. It’s one of the hardest hurdles we had to get past, was acceptance of the neighborhood. Just because we’ve been accepted already doesn’t mean you can stop. You have to do the work. It’s all about story. You have to understand their stories before you make any moves. You can’t assume it.” 

Finally, Lanh mused on his current mission. 

“Part of the inspiration of this was to help put Cambodian food on the map, just to help progress that voice,” Lanh said. “I feel our food is so underrepresented. You see first-generation Cambodians starting to emerge, trying to progress the culture and preserve the culture. I’m just one voice in the chorus, but I want to be a strong voice in the chorus. Right now is the best time to do it. You’re still telling stories.”