Phnom Penh Restaurant Reviews: La CitaJanuary 28, 2012
Phnom Penh’s expat community is sufficiently large that the opening of a place that serves a fine English breakfast or good value for the money pizza is hardly noteworthy, certainly not cause for excitement. On the other hand, the emergence of places like La Cita is indeed cause for celebration among those of us looking for something new and different.
La Cita is not brand new to Phnom Penh but the owner’s focus on word of mouth rather than advertising has kept this Chilean-Peruvian restaurant relatively hidden. The owner and chef prefers it that way for now, wanting to make sure things are just right. He’s well on the way because La Cita is, even with a few bumps along the way, a fine dining experience.
South American food is not Mexican food. The potato, which rarely makes an appearance in Mexican cuisine, is a staple here, and the combination of spices is quite different than one would find to the north. La Cita’s menu features some Mexican style dishes like tacos and quesadillas, but that’s not why you should go there: go there instead for the Chilean and Peruvian dishes.
In the gritty East Hollywood neighborhood I lived for many years two of my favorite neighborhood restaurants were Chilean and Peruvian. For fifteen years my standard order would be a Characero Sandwich at one, and Lomo Saltado at the other. To see both these dishes make an appearance in our fair city is marvelous.
The chacarero features well seasoned chopped beef, a tomato onion salsa, and a huge mass of creamy avocado on a homemade bun. La Cita uses Thai rather than Mondulkiri avocados, which, says the owner, is close to what you’d find in Santiago. If you’ve shopped for avocados in Phnom Penh, particularly in the off-season, you know they don’t come cheap (of course neither does good beef) and you’ll understand why La Cita’s sandwiches are a little pricey at $6.40. In the case of the chacarero it’s worth every penny: it’s a fabulous (if messy) sandwich).
The Lomo Saltado served at La Cita is a bit different than what I’m used to but it’s very good. Lomo Saltado consists of marinated beef with chopped onion and tomato stir-fried and served on top of or mixed with fried potatoes and served with a side of seasoned rice. In La Cita’s version the mixture can be quite spicy if you request it that way, as I did. It makes for a tasty and filling meal, to say the least. The meal will set you back $7.50. You’ll probably take some home as I did.
It’s worth noting here that at this stage La Cita’s evolution, the owner Richard does all the cooking himself so you know what you’re going to get is the best the place has to offer. He has constructed a beautiful kitchen in full view of the outside seating and it’s a pleasure to watch him work. He employs a baker to prepare the delicious sandwich buns, as well as another South American favorite, empanadas. Unfortunately on two of the three occasions I ordered them the baker had not been available to prepare them and so I had to go elsewhere on the menu. When I did try them – empenadas are little Latin American versions of the English meat pie I suppose – I found them good but not great, but I’m fully intending to give them another try when I can.
Ceviche, raw fish marinated in lime and spices, is on offer in both Mexican and Peruvian versions. Last visit at the owner’s recommendation I tried the Mexican, which is a bit spicier but less colorful than the Peruvian take. It was quite tasty. The Peruvian version looms large as a choice for an upcoming visit.
One of the features of Chilean and Peruvian cuisine is a range of salsas different from that which you may have tried. The green salsa in particular is quite delicious and a perfect accompaniment to the occasionally elusive empanada or just as a dip for your bun. Genuine tomatillos are not readily available here so La Cita uses a local green tomato, and it works just fine.
If you’ve any room left, a range of fruit smoothies are available and make a fine way to end your meal (or start it for that matter). $2.25.
In addition to its patio seating, La Cita does have a few inside tables for when the weather turns ugly but unless you just have to catch the latest episode of Ben 10 it would be a shame to miss the action in the La Cita kitchen. Staff is friendly and attentive but not particularly well versed in the menu particulars so you may have to help them along, and questions of a culinary nature are best addressed to the chef himself who is quite happy to engage.
La Cita is a very welcome addition to the Phnom Penh dining scene, may it live long and prosper.
La Cita, 13 Street 282, Phnom Penh
Cuisine: South American