Lowell, Mass., offers up taste of Little Cambodia

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 18, 2014 at 10:07 am •  Published: March 18, 2014

LOWELL, Mass. (AP) — 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.