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Trieu Chau Restaurant
4653 University Avenue,
City Heights
(619) 280-4204

This is the ritual: come around nine in the morning and sit in the back on the salmon-colored Formica benches, where all the Cambodians gather. Donut-shop owners, teachers, retired soldiers, shift workers. Some read newspapers, everybody talks Cambodian politics, most order the breakfast they've eaten all their lives, a kind of H-shaped fried croissant, with coffee poured over condensed milk. Maps of Kampuchea decorate the walls, as well as long-distance telephone ads. "Cambodia: $10 for 33 minutes." The menu has a large drawing of famed Angkor Wat on it. But when Kathy -- a Chinese-Cambodian -- comes to take your order, just say, "Djak kvai coffay dok ko." "Fried bread with Cambodian coffee." Or you might have the dish most Khmers (Cambodians) eat in the evenings, "if the nights are calm and there is no war," as one customer puts it: pan-fried noodles with broccoli, beef or shrimp, and gravy ("Koitiow bahat sai kho"). Don't ask for it with chicken, which Khmers consider tasteless. Now take an interest in the noisy chess game. Pieces include seashells, wooden domes, and conical-hatted kings. It's quick. It's complicated. But they'll happily teach you, and maybe they'll teach you how to sit cross-legged on the bench too. Plus, you'll pick up some language. It's a great way to dip into the Khmers' ancient, sophisticated, and wounded culture.

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