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Apsara revives culinary spirit of the Lemon Grass Cafe

Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review - Apsara Cafe on the South Side features Moarn Chha Kroeung (original Khmer dish) as presented by server,Sara Buttra, Friday, June 7, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Keith Hodan  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Apsara Cafe on the South Side features Moarn Chha Kroeung (original Khmer dish) as presented by server,Sara Buttra, Friday, June 7, 2013.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review - Apsara Cafe on the South Side features Moarn Chha Kroeung (original Khmer dish) and other Thai-Cambodian cuisine on their menu, Friday, June 7, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Keith Hodan  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Apsara Cafe on the South Side features Moarn Chha Kroeung (original Khmer dish) and other Thai-Cambodian cuisine on their menu, Friday, June 7, 2013.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 6:30 p.m.
 

Many people were disappointed when the Lemon Grass Cafe, which had appeal for both quality and price, closed Downtown in February. But the next month, its owner opened the Apsara Cafe on the South Side, his family's fourth local restaurant since 1994 specializing in Thai and Cambodian cuisine.

The new restaurant, whose walls are adorned with Cambodian art and sculpture, has an open and airy feel, thanks to a high ceiling and a floor-to-ceiling glass front, which lets in lots of natural light.

Owner and manager Bo Meng runs it with his family, or at least the part of his family who escaped the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the late '70s. The horrors of that regime were movingly depicted in the 1984 film “The Killing Fields.”

Meng and his mother, Kim Hong, were the only two out of a family of nine to survive. Their family was part of the mass exodus from the capitol city Phnom Penh forced by the dictator Pol Pot. Most their family died from starvation or lack of medicine.

It took Hong 10 months to walk to a refugee camp just inside Thailand. After she located her surviving son in a nearby village, her father helped get the papers necessary to be able to relocate to the United States in 1981. They came to Pittsburgh with help from local charities because her grandfather had come here in 1975.

Hong worked various jobs while her son went to school. He graduated from Thiel College in 1992 with a degree in business administration. In 1994, they purchased the Downtown Phnom Penh restaurant, but that wasn't the start of their restaurant experience.

“I was already in the restaurant business at that point,” says Meng, 45. “I started as a busboy when I was 13 or 14, and worked my way up to waiter and head waiter and then restaurant manager. My best job in high school was to wait on tables.”

Meng and his wife, Nitya, who is Thai, are the cooks, assisted by other family members, with Hong an especially influential voice in the kitchen.

“Thai and Cambodian food are very similar, but then, they are neighboring countries and share many ingredients, such as lemon grass, as well as the same kind of ginger, kaffir lemon leaf and fish. Thai is usually a little spicier,” Meng says.

They also are known for a skillful and often-subtle mix of flavors.

Apsara's large menu includes more than a dozen appetizers, 10 varieties of soup, seven salads, rice and noodle dishes, lunch and dinner entrees, a handful of Chinese dishes — such as General Tso's Chicken — and more than a dozen desserts.

The Apsara Salad, $7.95, combines fresh lettuce, red, yellow and green peppers, sweet red and white Vidalia onions, bean sprouts, basil and mint leaves, galangal (related to ginger), lemon grass, lime rind, roasted peanuts and marinated and grilled steak.

Vegetarian or tofu, chicken, beef, pork or shrimp entrees are $7.95 to $9.95 for lunch and $10.95 to $13.95 for dinner. A soup and spring roll come with each entree.

Moarn Chha Kroeung is an original Cambodian entree, a sauteed dish with fresh broccoli, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, onions, snow peas, red and green peppers and water chestnuts in a spicy lemon-grass sauce.

Thai Curry Scallops is available only at dinner, $14.95. It is served with potatoes, onions, bamboo shoots, eggplant, broccoli, green peppers and green beans in a creamy coconut red or green curry sauce.

Desserts, such as Sang Khaya Katt, a flan, rainbow cake, squash custard, or sweet rice cake with roasted sesame seeds, are $4.95. A sampler of any four deserts is $5.95.

Apsara Cafe, 1703 E. Carson St, South Side. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, noon to 9 p.m. Sundays. Details: 412- 251-0664 or www.apsaracafe.com.

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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