At first blush, Heavens & Earth Café can seem a little too New Age to be taken seriously: "Dance," Hope," "Love," "Dream" are proclaimed in 8-inch wood-block letters resting on window frames. Inspirational quotations such as "Let your inner light shine" are framed and hung around the room. After you've made several visits, what's written on the walls as decoration actually seems written onto the hearts of the people who make up the community of the House of Light.
The House of Light of Heavens & Earth Café, Richmond's first, and so far only Cambodian restaurant, quietly opened for business last month in a converted house tucked behind Full Kee restaurant and adjacent to the Far East market.
The location once was home to Pho Vinh Phat. If you ever went there, the first thing you should know is that the interior of Heavens & Earth Café has been fully renovated: It's bright, cheerful and, best of all, clean. The other thing to know is that while the food is very good, it isn't really about the food.
"This is why we are here," says Bo, one of the cooks (the other one, Rick, is his brother) and a cousin by marriage of the owner. He points to a paragraph on the front of the menu bearing the heading, "The angels have spoken!"
Due in part to its country's political history of invasion and occupation, Cambodian food is very similar to Vietnamese and Thai. Fish, beef and pork are staple proteins; lemongrass, ginger, papaya, hot pepper and fish sauce feature prominently across the menu, which includes a number of noodle soups known as kuytiev (pronounced kuteel), they are similar to Vietnamese pho along with fried rice, whole fried fish and pan-fried noodles similar to pad Thai.
For the adventurous, lemongrass sour beef stew, an authentic Khmer dish of Asian eggplant, lemongrass, bell pepper and honeycomb tripe that uses a hand-crushed blend of a half-dozen spices, is a good place to start. And the Heavenly Papaya Salad, when prepared "Cambodian hot," makes the somtum at Mom's Siam seem bland by comparison.
The crispy tilapia, served whole and smothered in bean sauce with ginger slices, scallions and peppers, is particularly rich and sufficient for two. Borrowing slightly from the French, Jenny's Yellow Pancake, a large yellow crepe filled with ground pork and bean sprouts (they were out of pork so mine came with shrimp and chicken), is among my favorites, not only because of its texture but also because I can eat it with my hands, making a mess as I plunge it into the bowl of strong fish sauce.
For now, the people who come to Heavens & Earth Café are mostly drawn from Richmond's large and growing community of Cambodian and Vietnamese émigrés. Part of the reason for starting Heavens & Earth Café, owner Dao Huynh says, was to give the Cambodian community a place of its own.
But the restaurant isn't only about building up the Asian community; it's about building community in the larger sense, as well. Recently, Bo says, he served a table of Hispanic men. They didn't quite know what to do, he says: "But that is OK. We learn from them, and we teach them something too."
For all its good food, Heavens & Earth Café is less about bringing people together for good food and more about giving people good food when they get together. If you're the kind of person who wants to get in, order your food, eat and leave, the restaurant may not be for you.
Absent from Heavens & Earth Café is the standard cultural distance between Asian staff and Western customer that exists in many Asian restaurants. In each of my visits, the owner or a cook has come out to take care of me, ask if I have questions, take my order and talk to me just as if I were a guest in his home. And that's the point.
"Feel good, feel God," Dao explains on my first visit. Sure, that's a little evangelical for a dinner out. But, on the other hand, when was the last time you went to a restaurant that set as its main objective to have you feel good?
Toward the end of one meal, Bo brought a special treat: a banana encased in sweet rice and baked in a banana leaf. "Try this," he says. (It wasn't on the menu.) "We just made them today because we feel like it." It was phenomenal. Welcome to the House of Light. S
House of Light of Heavens & Earth Café ($)
6311 Rigsby Road
Tuesday-Friday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m.