In Long Beach, a Love Letter in the Form of Cambodian Chicken Wings

The smells and sounds of Cambodia, nestled between a salon and a mariscos joint, rise from a North Long Beach storefront.

Many of these smells and sounds have a connection to the Cambodian classics. Shlap Muan — steaming bowls of kuy teav (pork noodle soup), heaps of lok lak (pepper beef), garlic noodles upon garlic noodles, dishes that have inextricably tied Cambodian culture to Long Beach — what they are all particularly geared toward is the heart of the restaurant: the humble-but-mighty fried chicken wing. (“Shlap muan”Khmer for “chicken wings.”Hawk and Sophia Tea, husband-and wife, are offering playful, if not quite witty, takes to dry seasonings or wing sauces in their small restaurant with only a handful tables.

The result? The result? “Cambodian dirt.” Deconstructing the flavors of Peking duck — a staple at Cambodian celebrations, given China’s heavy influence on the Southeast Asian country’s food — into a dry seasoning that uses Sichuan peppercorns and five-spice cheekily dubbed “pekang.”Or, you can play with the classic salt-and pepper dishes found in Asian American restaurants and create a savory umami bomb. “jalapeno MSG,”A jab at unscientific, racially biased American conception that blames Asian foods’ inclusion of MSG for myriad health concerns.

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Chef-owner Hawk Tea’s seasoning blends.

A tray with fried chicken wings at Shlap Muan.

Shlap Muan’s wings are fried to perfection.

Orange habanero chicken wings in a bowl at Shlap Muan.

Dirty Elvis wings served alongside green onions and dried chiles.

At Shlap Muan, the Teas are hoping not only to alter people’s conception of what constitutes Cambodian food, but to encourage fellow Cambodians and Cambodian Americans to own, harness, and alchemize their food experiences. It’s also a love letter to Hawk’s parents, Chhay and Leeann Tea, who previously ran a restaurant in the space. “People ask me where my flavors come from, and it’s from them,”Hawk said. “My family is from Cambodia, but also has a deep Chinese heritage attached. After being refugees, we became American, so my ideas of food are swirled around these three cultures simultaneously.”

Shlap Muan’s space is inherently attached to Hawk’s parents’ difficult transition into American life. They arrived on the city’s shores in 1991 after staying in a refugee camp in order to escape the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, like many other Cambodian families in Long Beach. (In the case Chhay and Leeann it was the Nong Samet refugee camps at the Vietnam-Cambodia frontier.

As with many Cambodian families who tried to assimilate into Southern California, elder Teas also turned to food for income. Many chose doughnuts, as exemplified by Los Angeles’s Donut King Ted Ngoy, while others chose restaurants. While Cambodian food, particularly in Long Beach and recently outside and within Los Angeles, has become more common, Cambodian immigrant families — like the Thai, Vietnamese, and other Asian immigrants before them — had to focus on a food Americans were already familiar with.

A bowl of sweet spicy garlic chicken wings at Shlap Muan.

The Dirty Elvis wings come with a sweet, smoky caramel glaze.

A tray of fried chicken wings having sauce drizzled on them at Shlap Muan.

Sauced wings on a tray.

This usually meant some kind of Chinese food, which was already a major influence in Cambodian cuisine. That is exactly what Chhay, Leeann, and others served. Little did Hawk know that, like his parents’ up-and-down path to finding stability, he himself would have an adventure that would take him away only to bring him back home. “I was always in the kitchen because it was the family workspace,”Hawk said. “Once I was grown, I wanted nothing to do with the restaurant. Me and my wife were just itching — so we decided to go to San Francisco.”

A Bay Area corporate job for Hawk proved soul-crushing, while homesickness increased with each return trip home in order to stock up on Tupperware filled with his mother’s kreoung and prahok (fermented fish paste). All of this resulted in a newfound appreciation for his parents’ cooking and the need for another new beginning, so, in 2018, Hawk and Sophie opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant on the third floor of San Francisco’s Crocker Galleria.

A cook seasoning a bowl of chicken wings at Shlap Muan.

Hawk Tea, Sophia’s husband and co-owner of the restaurant.

A glass restaurant door with a chicken logo that says “Shlap Muan.”

The restaurant, which used to house a Chinese restaurant owned by Hawk’s parents.

The pair was originally called Braised + Bread, but then switched to Shlap Muan. This allowed for a steady buildup of patrons. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Soleil Ho even added Shlap Muan to her constantly evolving “Best Fried Chicken in the Bay”List in 2019. However, Hawk and Sophia were unable maintain the restaurant after the unforeseeable pandemic of 2020. His parents wanted to retire, which coincided with Sophia’s retirement. It was the silver lining the pair needed: a Long Beach restaurant they could move into, a community that recognized their food, and a chance to uplift not only themselves but Hawk’s hard-working, albeit tired, parents.

Down came his parents’ exhaustive Chinese American menu, with Hawk quickly removing dishes that didn’t sell or match their vision while simultaneously creating Cambodian-centric versions of the popular dishes. What did this all mean? Garlic noodles were used instead of chow mash. And — an ode to his parents if there was ever one — the removal of a more standard orange chicken in favor of a spicier interpretation. (“Thank you, Panda Express, but that is not what I want people to know from my parents’ work,”Hawk laughs. He replaced it with an orange habanero sauce that heightens the orange flavor and erases the bitterness from orange chicken’s chile flakes. The sauce, which can be ordered with Hawk’s perfectly fried wings, is a take on the dish that is as much Long Beach as it is Cambodian.

“My parents never really wanted me to get into the restaurant business because of how hard it is,”Hawk said. “And I witnessed that hardship but when I have these flavors, I return to a place that brings me peace and happiness. My parents are as much a part of this as me — and that’s honestly the most fulfilling and loving part of it all.”

Shlap Muan can be found at 2150 E. South Street in Long Beach from 10:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

2150 E South St. Long Beach, CA 90805

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