Phnom Penh Restaurant Reviews: Viva Mexican Restaurant

It was never my intention for this review to be like a cactus – prickly. Indeed, taking into consideration the sum total of my Mexican gastronomic and culinary history thus far amounted to a pair of Freebird breakfast burritos, I’d decided to enlist the support over dinner of not just one but two fellow expats, neither of whom were strangers to the varied flavors of Mexican cuisine. One, a true trencherman, had lived in Mexico for years, and the other, a native Angelino, could be quite fairly described as a connoisseur of LA taco trucks. Both brought a certain weight, seriousness and dignity to the occasion.

Unfortunately, neither of them was terribly impressed and there was definitely no air punching over dinner at our table on this almost serene northerly stretch of Sisowath Quay.

So before becoming Grinch-like and taking a swipe at the food, I feel that in the interests of fairness and balance, time should be spent emphasizing the positives because this simply isn’t a question of food per se but of the dining experience as a whole and much of it was good.

For a start, the drinks were fantastic value. Who needs Corona or Sol ($3) when a foaming glass of fresh, ice-cold Anchor costs a trifling fifty cents? You can’t fault the value there.

By the same token, the frozen margaritas (‘brain-freeze’ guaranteed) won’t make much of a notch on your tab either at a piffling $1.50 each. Granted, they aren’t as storming as the margaritas at the Elephant Bar but nor do they cost $9.

The interior designers have gone for unfussy canteen-like look and just as in Viva’s sister venue up in Siem Reap, the owner isn’t afraid to crank up the aircon to the max to greet customers with a welcoming blast of cool air. Furthermore, and most unusually for this town, he doesn’t wait for the first group of customer to arrive before doing so. No scrimping, there then.

And then there was the service, which was pleasantly confident and run by a permanently grinning waiter, shuttling back and forth with admirable dexterity.

So out came the bright, waxy plastic-covered menus and not so long afterwards we kicked off with a competent and savory quesadilla ($3) accompanied by an acceptable tortilla soup ($2.50) rather let down by the single lonely-looking tortilla squatting atop.

It was soon after that my dining partners noticeably winced when encountering the problem that would unfortunately crop up again and again during lunch: the absence of chili and the trademark vim it brings to real Mexican food. This ersatz stuff was far from the renditions of Mexican food my dining partners were used to south of the border and in LA. There was no heat – no kick from the chili mule – and while most dishes were well prepared, they suffered from blandness and vapidity.

During a hiatus between courses and while my dining partners were lamenting their overly tame ‘San Francisco’ tomato sauce, I was temporarily struck dumb with margarita related ‘brainfreeze’ and left gasping like a goldfish that had jumped out of its tank. Nevertheless, the genial waiter – grinning that grin again – took this all in his stride as he brought out the plates of neatly folded things one by one.

Carne Asada Burrito ($6)
Pork Enchilada ($5)
Pork Tenderloin ($5)

Both wrapped mains came with a with a side order of sautéed, reddish orange Mexican rice, which had a pleasant smoky flavor, the shredded beef steak in the wheat flour burrito had been agreeably marinated and for one titillating moment my dining partner ‘thought’ he had actually found a red chili. Alas, on closer inspection the soggy vegetable transpired to be dreary capsicum rather than the vibrant and fiery capsaicin.

Likewise, the corn enchilada was entirely competent, but sadly shrouded in a tame and lackluster ‘San Francisco’ tomato sauce rather than the promised chili pepper packed sauce. (To add insult to injury Enchilada is the past participle of the Spanish enchilar, “to add chilli pepper’’ or so Wikipedia tells me.)

So far so ‘not so good, not so bad’ and the only real stinker was an insufficiently marinated pork tenderloin that left my dining partner, tequila-soaked carnivore that he is, feeling underwhelmed.

With hindsight, the dining experience certainly wasn’t a disgrace and much of the food was tasty and flavorsome. Furthermore, if you are looking to get a full belly at a riverside eatery for less than a tenner a head and have confined chili peppers to your culinary room 101 then Vivas fits the bill, but if you’re pining for authentic highly spiced Mexican food, you certainly won’t find it here.

Calling Vivas a ‘Mexican’ restaurant is, I suppose, technically correct as far as the sign over the front door goes but you wouldn’t want to press the point too much.

Viva Mexican Restaurant
Sisowath Quay along the river front, directly opposite Titanic Restaurant
Open 11am – 11pm

Restaurant non smoking. Tables for smokers outside on the terrace

Words: Peter Hogan
Photography: Jeff Mudrick

21 thoughts on “Phnom Penh Restaurant Reviews: Viva Mexican Restaurant

  1. barforsalecambodia Reply

    I agree with most of this review. The prices are good, the service is great, and the food is not spicy. That said, I love most of the food. It tastes “homemade,” as the corn and flour tortillas are, but remains very tasty, in a non-spicy kind of way.

    The variety of foods on the menu is also noteworthy as other “Mexican” restaurants in town only have a few selections. Where else can you get a chimichanga, mexican pizza, taquitos, homemade chips and salsa, etc. etc. etc. The salad and rice that come with most mains also is a great plus, in my opinion.

    I find it a great place to get a healthy, tasty, full meal, and a very reasonable price.

  2. Farangtalk Reply

    Tried this place a couple of weeks ago. Cheap as it gets so how can you be disappointed? You nailed it with the lack of chili in the dishes, that was my main gripe also. Definitely had better Mexican in Phnom Penh but I’ve had a lot worse in Bangkok, and for the money I’ll probably be back.

    • Peter Hogan Post authorReply

      I hope you didn’t find the review too negative, because that wasn’t my intent. My thesis is that if you accept Viva for what it clearly is (a good value riverfront restaurant with well-prepared, tasty food)rather than what it clearly is not (an ‘authentic’ Mexican eatery) then all will be well.

      • Bob Landen Reply

        Your comments are on target and your words well-chosen. Siem Reap is equally bland, but where’s better in PP and SR? Of course we can always prepare and take our own mouth-burning sauce!! I understand Greg Lange’s Sunrise Tacos opens in PP this month (June). There are many in Bangkok. Tasty for fast-food and spicier options. The best in Bangkok is consdiered to be La Monita, pricier but more authentuic. Thanks for taking the time to review Viva so well.

        us ipoeni ng in PP in

  3. EK Reply

    Enjoyed the fish tacos at the Siem Reap branch. Also got a kick out of talking with the Cambodian owner, who told us he learned how to make Mexican food while owning a liquor store in Compton (LA) for 5 years.

    Just commenting because I got a kick out of the comment above. Chimichangas are not Mexican. Neither are “Mexican pizzas” or most of the other Tex Mex calling itself Mexican we’ve found so far in PP. Actually, even margaritas and nachos were invented by United Staters. Authentic Mexican food is extremely varied by region, spicy as hell, and totally delicious … and some Tex Mex is satisfying and also tasty. But the two are not the same! Okay, stepping off my soap box now.

    • v Reply

      ok, well then if that’s not mexican food, are you an american? i think there were people there before you got there and blah blah blah. And your “cambodian” girlfriend is probably vietnamese. (uncivilized, I know, but i couldn’t resist)

      • EK Reply

        I’m a female, who has lived in Mexico City, and my boyfriend (who helped write this comment, he couldn’t resist either) is from Mexico City, born and raised.

        I’d respond to the rest of your bizarre comment, but I don’t understand it.

    • barforsalecambodia Reply

      I’m gonna stick up for V because primordial arguments bother me. If you want to claim something is “Mexican” it should be invented by the “Mexican” nation, ie by someone that is a “Mexican.” So anything that existed in the area that is now “Mexico,” before there was a “Mexico,” is not “Mexican” either — it is _____ (whatever group created that thing). So, were tacos invented in “Mexico” by “Mexicans” or by another group of people? Ask that about all “Mexican” food too and then get off of your soapbox. “Mexican” food and “______(native)” food are not the same thing!

  4. barangdave Reply

    Don’t forget the New Mex influence as well. They grow the best chilis/chiles.

  5. Ian Reply

    How about sour cream?
    I remember wanting some nachos with sourcream, and that was the hardest part.

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  7. HK Reply

    Barforsalecambodia you dont have any clue what are you talking about if you wanna know about Mexican food just let me know

    • Robert Landen Reply

      OK HK, tell is what you know as an aficionado of Mexican fare, preferably related to what’s available in in Phnom Penh, Siem Feap,and elsewhere in Cambodia.

  8. Pingback:Mexican food in Phnom Penh | Travelfish on Phnom Penh

  9. moctezuma s. revenge Reply

    Some alternatives to the Taco Bell of PP.
    The Garage; chicken enchilada
    Sharkey’s; Nachos supreme, Chicken quesadilla, Chicken or Steak burrito
    California 2; seasoned pork

  10. Bob Reply

    The original review was very well written. I’m thankful for Viva, both here and in Siem Reap. If one requires firery spices, take a packet of dried chili with you! By now the owner may well have stocked some chili. If you crave Mexican food as I do,you won’t be disappointed.

    • Franz Voss Reply

      Very well said Bob, wonderful food, nice owner. Very affordable.
      and not Tex Mex or Taco Bell either, so they have my vote.

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  12. Kelly McKnight Reply

    My amazing husband and I visited Viva in Siem Reap and were blown away by the excellent food and very cheap cocktails. We enjoyed it so much that we went back the next night (and the next night) and also visited the sister branch in Phnom Penh. Despite the technicalities in the comments above, the food and atmosphere is very good at a very affordable price. 10/10

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