Phnom Penh Coffee SmackdownJanuary 10, 2012
Phnom Penh. 6:00am. Sun breaking over the Mekong; ladies in pajamas flapping their arms in synchronized ecstasy to Akon along the river, chickens scratching, café workers stoking their charcoal fires in the cool morning air. Time to slog off to your NGO / English School / Massage Parlor, and last night’s Anchor is pounding its sharp prongs into your temples: where do you go for a caffeinated release from this purgatory?
Sure you could hit up those coffee carts whose product is vastly superior to most fancy cafes about town, with their ingenious plastic-bag-without-the-bag handle device system, and enough sugar to induce a diabetic coma in 3 sips, but sometimes you need a little Western-style luxury. Who deserves your hard-earned riel?
First, criteria must be determined.
1. Shhhh. I need quiet in such times – not morgue quiet, but the less chattering voices / tile grinding / motor gunning the better.
2. Coffee. Oh yeah, the stuff should actually taste good.
3. Price. If you’re in one of these joints you’ve committed to spend a bit of cash, but gotta save a little for rent and more Anchor.
Service has been taken out of the equation, since it was, across the board, friendly, quick, and professional, if a bit hover-y. Music has been taken out of the equation as well, since all of these places play annoying, whiny female singer/songwriters, sometimes singing their own vapid concoctions, other times butchering innocent classics. Cafes in America are no different. It’s enough to start killing people and writing Don’t Know Why I Didn’t Come Home on the wall in their blood. Was this always the case or do we have Friends to blame, or perhaps Ally McBeal? I want names.
Gloria Jean’s – Corner of Street 51 and St 310, BKK 1
Shhhh. God it’s loud in here. Whatever materials they used on the floors and walls was designed for maximum echo and clatter. Every scraping chair / mug set down / footstep echoes like a German Expressionist film and creates an unpleasant din of noise. And then there’s the milk-steaming machine. The long, open bar along the back wall ensures everyone is within ear-shot of the hideous screeching noise this device emits. Coffee is great, though, the latte is rich and milky with a nice depth of flavor, and will set you back 2 Anchors – sorry, $2.50. A mug of regular clocks in at $2.30. If you don’t mind your money going to a fascist religious fundamentalist group based in Australia, this is the place for you.
Fresco – Corner of St 51 and St 306, BKK 1
There’s a pleasant buzz here that makes the place feel welcoming but not overly loud or crowded. Comfy leather seating and an impressive array of food offerings and fruit drinks rounds out the experience. But let’s get down to business. Illy coffee, ($2.20 for a regular) is served; unfortunately it tastes a bit weak and watery. The Café Latte fares better with a rich deep flavor, though it has a funny burnt aftertaste. It does have a nice head of foamed milk and a nice pour for $2.20. Overall a great place to meet a friend, do some work, or read the papers: just not the best coffee in town.
Brown – Corner of Street 51 and Street 302/ Corner of Street 57 and Street 294, BKK1
So popular they made another branch kitty-corner to their first one. You can actually say ‘I’ll meet you at the Brown in BKK near street 294’, and you and your coffee date can be at a location that fits this criteria and still be in different buildings. Despite this new location, both are still insanely crowded, so much so that I’ve walked into Brown many times, only to walk out due to sensory overload from seeing so many people jammed into seats tapping away at IPads.
Café Americano is their version of regular coffee, $1.90 for a small. Weak flavor but has some savory notes that come through nicely. Burnt milk foam on the Café Latte does not bode well, despite the cute heart they draw on top. Not the richest blend but a decent, nutty flavor once you get past the foam. Somehow the flavor gets weaker as you near the end of the cup. At $2.10 it’s the cheapest, but you only get a small pour. Soothing dim lighting and large windows are nice, and indeed, walls, tables, floors are all brown, making the place look like hip coffee places do in the movies, or crappy T.V. shows. A plethora of outlets to plug into. A few upholstered seats but mostly wooden chairs, so may not be ideal for long stays. Solid B.
Spinelli’s – Street 63, BKK1
I haven’t been here for the morning rush (my massage parlor doesn’t get kicking until 10 or so) but just walking in to the cavernous, cool spot puts me at ease. Nice layout, tastefully decorated in greys, browns, orange and russet, tiled walls and columns, huge windows, wooden tables and floors. Really, just a lovely atmosphere.
Unfortunately that’s where the good times end. Coffee ($2.20) is simultaneously weak and burnt, ala Starbucks. It’s almost undrinkable, lots of bitter notes and nothing redeeming. Café Latte ($2.30) is just plain weak, I think the problem here is it’s served in a large mug, making the milk to espresso ratio too high. Yes, the abundance of warm milk is making me quite sleepy – along with the mewling of this particular whiny female singer/songwriter, I could curl up and nap on the (extremely comfortable) couch. Then have vivid nightmares about skipping through a field of poppies singing about the Sunrise, then imploring someone to Kiss Me, and finally (I’m leaving after this song) Love Me.
Verdict: Get some take-away from Gloria Jean’s (moral quandaries notwithstanding), and head for the sanctity of your own house or office. Or bring your IPod.