LOWELL - Consider yourself warned: You're going to need your GPS for this meal. And a short history lesson. But it will be worth it.
Tucked along the Merrimack River about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Boston is a former mill town that most people would be inclined to cruise right past on their way to tax-free shopping in New Hampshire. Though it once was the industrial hub of the United States, Lowell has been in decline for decades. And it shows.
In its heyday, Lowell was home mostly to French Canadian and Irish immigrants, all coming to work in the mills. The mills are long gone, but the gorgeous brick buildings that once housed them along the river remain. In fact, the former Boott Cotton Mills have been converted into a museum run by the National Park Service, and it's well worth a visit.
By the middle of the last century, the Canadians and Irish in Lowell were joined by Hispanics, and the flavor of the city got a lot more exciting. But the most interesting change came during the `70s and `80s, when wave upon wave of Cambodians came. In fact, Lowell now is home to one of the largest populations of Cambodians outside Cambodia.
A few years ago the city recognized the asset this presented and began promoting what it dubbed "Little Cambodia," a warren of streets a bit outside the downtown where numerous East Asian businesses had been established. Little Cambodia remains a work in progress, but for a taste of something deliciously different, it's worth finding.
Which may not be easy. Lowell itself is easy to find. But Little Cambodia is nestled into a snarl of traffic and winding way-too-narrow lanes mostly clustered around Middlesex and Branch streets. Cue the GPS.
Sadly, much of the neighborhood isn't yet pedestrian-friendly. So start your visit New Phnom Penh, an Asian grocer (with ample parking) at 37 Branch St. It's huge and - another warning - a bit of a sensory overload. But take the time to explore the aisles; it's easy to be amazed by how much food you may not recognize. Be daring and bring home something you have no idea how to eat.
Next, walk across the street to the simply named Dessert Shop and Bakery at 32 Branch St. Oddly, it seems to sell no desserts or baked goods, or at least it didn't when I visited. But it doesn't matter. Head right for the counter where there are piles of deli containers with Cambodian lunch items. Among them, you'll find the beef jerky the owner makes herself.
This isn't your typical beef jerky. It is paper thin and looks like it was run through a shredder. It is pleasantly spicy and chewy, and totally addictive.
Now it's time to hop back in your car and head to Lincoln Street. It's not far, but you'll be challenged to find it without your GPS. Tucked into a small and nondescript plaza is Simply Khmer, 26 Lincoln St., consider by some to offer the best - and most authentic - Cambodian food in the city.
The decor is basic American-Asian restaurant, but the food is anything but. You will be presented with a massive menu. Ignore it. The waiter likely will advise you to avoid anything with fermented fish products. Unless you are well accustomed to these ingredients, heed that advice. Instead, ask for the beef loc lac.
Loc lac is a classic Cambodian dish of seared beef that has beef marinated and cooked in a savory sauce made with (among other things) garlic, soy sauce and sugar. It then is served with a dipping sauce made mostly of lime juice and black pepper. The combination is wonderful and will leave you wondering why you haven't done this at your backyard barbecue.
If You Go:
SIMPLY KHMER: 26 Lincoln St., No. 4, Lowell, Mass., 978-454-6700. http://www.simplykhmerrestaurant.com/index.html
NEW PHNOM PENH: 37 Branch St., Lowell, Mass.
DESSERT SHOP AND BAKERY: 32 Branch St., Lowell, Mass.