Phnom Penh Dining Reviews: Alma CafeAugust 14, 2013
I can be loyal to the point of absurdity when it comes to businesses that do right by me; whose combination of quality and service is such that I’m willing to put up with enormous inconvenience to continue to enjoy what for me is a remarkable consumer experience.
I’m the kind of person who drives across town when their laundry moves. Fortunately for me, Alma Cafe is located a quick walk from my house near the Russian Market, but it’s one of those places.
Alma Cafe is a Mexican place unlike any other in Phnom Penh in that it’s actually run by a Mexican (their primary cook is not Mexican but has years of Mexican cooking experience). Now if the food was crap that wouldn’t make any difference at all, but in this case the authenticity of Alma Cafe’s offerings benefits its patrons in terms of quality and especially in its variety.
When it first opened Alma offered a changing breakfast menu, but they soon settled upon a set menu of four items: Huevos Rancheros, Chliaquiles, Chorizo Hash and a Breakfast Burrito. Breakfast runs all day, which is 7am-2pm at Alma. Lunch, served from 11am-2pm usually offers two or so items which change from day to day. All breakfast items are $4.00, including bottomless coffee and juice. Lunch items are typically $5.00
I eat breakfast at Alma perhaps three times a week, and having tried their full complement of of menu items my overwhelming favorite is the Chorizo Hash, a blend of spiced ground pork shoulder and cubed potatoes, served with your choice of salsa roja or verde (red or green). I vote green. If you are used to salsa as served at most every other Mexican food place in town, Alma will stand out. No big chunks of tomato and onion and cilantro, it’s more the consistency of a sauce than you may be used to, but both salsas are quite good. As tomatillos don’t seem to be available in Phnom Penh, Alma roasts local green tomatoes to achieve a flavor sufficiently reminiscent of the traditional tomatillo based salsa verde that it works wonderfully on my chorizo hash. There’s just enough of a little orange pool of grease with the chorizo that you know they’re doing things right (they actually have to add a bit of fat to the ground shoulder to achieve that).
The Chilaquiles, Breakfast Burrito and Huevos Rancheros are all worthy alternatives. Whether or not the Huevos at Alma become your favorite in town in largely will depend on how you like your salsa. I prefer Alma’s to other local offerings but not by a wide margin. The deciding factor for me are their refried beans, which, as far as I know, are the only ones in town made with lard. A good friend who grew up eating Mexican food said she could smell the difference from across the street. You may not be as vociferous about your lard consumption but the beans are excellent. Unlike almost every other place in town their corn tortillas are also home made. The difference in quality between their homemade tortillas and the ubiquitous frozen ones, or god forbid the packaged hard shell ones, is not small.
What’s most impressive about Alma’s lunch menu is its variety. If tacos, burritos and enchiladas are all you know about Mexican food, Alma’s ever changing lunch menu will be a revelation. Whether it’s Picadillo, Tortilla Soup, or Mexican Eggplant, it’s great to see an operation so committed to offering it’s customers such a great variety of entrees not typically seen here.
Is everything a home run? No. Some customers may find their tacos a little skimpy, the small (but delicious) corn tortillas they use make for about three bites of taco experience per taco. And generally speaking the portions are not of the two-tacos-enchilada-rice-beans-my-god-I’m-so-stuffed variety that you might get from a three item combo at typical gringo establishments in Phnom Penh or Los Angeles. For me the portions are sufficient, and with a drink included very fair value at the $4-$5 per plate.
Service at Alma is friendly, attentive and generous. More tortillas? Here you go. More coffee sir? Would you like more juice? A fake moustache for a photo?
It’s hard not to love a place that does so many things right and I obviously do. Given the packed crowd at lunch, it seems I’m not the only one.
Alma is located at the corner of 454 and 123 three blocks southeast of the Russian Market. Daily lunch specials are posted on the Cafe Alma Facebook page.