Glancing up and down and around as we headed into Langeach Sros 54, I couldn’t help but notice that the exterior of this airy villa just off Norodom had all the concrete wedges and angular flourishes typical of post- independence, Khmer modernist design. Inside, a largish courtyard had been covered up and the space tidily transformed into a beer-garden-restaurant dotted with a random and enjoyably eccentric collection of brightly colored hanging lamps. Best of all, there was no three piece band or caterwauling singers battering our eardrums.
The menu looked harmless enough and being very keen to get my nose deep into a large jug of chilled Tiger Beer, I was content to let Rizzo do the ordering until the Italian stallion reminded me that this restaurant is renowned for its black ant dishes.
I should come clean here – not once, ever, have I had a bodily craving for ants. The prospect of scoffing ants doesn’t exactly play into my narrative. I’ve done buttered piggy intestines, venison luk lak, pan fried garlic frog, sizzling hot plate eel (which even my then Khmer girlfriend wasn’t up for) but insects were an entirely different proposition and just a bridge too far for this reviewer. A miserable sclerotic excuse, I acknowledge. For when it comes to eating ants, I’m a bottler, a weakling, a nervous shrew, in fact, as an alternative to eating insects, being shot in the head or just pistol whipped like Cadillac Kenny doesn’t sound too bad.
Rizzo, on the other hand, soars where culinary eagles dare, is a bona fide member of the Ant Eater Hall of Fame and a man for whom many, many ants have died. As such, he wasn’t grossed out in the slightest by the concept of a few hundred tiny deaths atop his plate.
The ant dish arrived first (Fried Beef with Big Black Ant 10,000 riel) and Rizzo took a big mouthful and started munching away, head down, living in the food, hair flopping about all directions. Apparently, the high fat content gives the ants something of a bacon flavor and Rizzo assured me that they were delicious. I was quite happy to take his word for it.
Next came a plate of grilled black pepper quail (10,000 riel) and we were soon digging into three whole birds (no part being wasted) and picking and pulling sticky burnt peppery bits of warm, moist breast away from the bone. Having last had spectacularly godawful dry, leathery quail at the ‘Restaurant with Three Wives’ in Battambang, this was a delight with the marinade and smoky BBQ flavor blending perfectly without overpowering the subtle quail taste. Healthy eaters will be pleased to know that this dish has an absurdly low cholesterol count too.
Finally, our whole fish (26,000 riel) came plump and hot, steamed with garlic and lemongrass and a mango dipping sauce on the side. Whilst the fish could and should have been scaled, it had nevertheless been expertly cooked and the flavorings did nothing to disrupt or overwhelm the delicate qualities of the flesh which peeled away in huge flakes.
Service was efficient and eager to please and the dining experience was, in short, exactly what I’ve come to expect from this kind of mid range, good value restaurant (well away from the BKK1 coach party places with their same old overpriced, wallet torturing, overhyped rubbish), serving up ample quantities of homely rustic Khmer nosh to the local middle classes and ideal for when you’ve got your ‘nice cheap Khmer food and jugs of beer’ head on.
Speaking of grog, Tiger pitchers cost just 13,000 riel with half pitchers also available, so even a whole fish or crab dish (seafood courses cluster around the $5-7 mark) and another two entrees (non seafood mains average $2.50-4) plus rice and couple of pitchers of beer shouldn’t provoke a bill much north of $15 which is very manageable, even in these times of general hardship when the local economy is about to throw itself off a cliff.
Langeach Sros 54, Street 178 just west of Norodom, Phnom Penh.