When I first arrived in Phnom Penh, all I wanted from a restaurant was air-conditioning.
Nothing appealed to me on the riverfront. I hadn’t yet discovered Brown’s or Vego. And the last place I wanted to be was anywhere near Monivong Boulevard.
Today it’s a different story. While friends and visitors suggest comfortable, western-style dining options, I’m perfectly happy in a Cambodian beer garden.
Park me in a corner of a local spot with a plate of salty-sugared peanuts and a dish of raw garlic and chiles and I’m as happy as that proverbial clam (until it’s boiled in a vat of oil).
While I still love an Italian meal at Pop’s and a French pastry at Blue Pumpkin, there’s something much more appealing and, well, local, about chowing down on a plate of meecha banlay or discovering a regional specialty, while practicing my shaky Khmer among the wait staff.
During my pursuit of local favourites, I’ve come across a number which have risen to the top of my list. You won’t find them online or in any dining guide. They are cheap, tasty, interesting and, in my book, more relevant to Cambodian cuisine than any fancy French bistro.
For starters, there’s the Chinese Noodle Restaurant which immediately became a favourite haunt. It’s a small hole-in-the-wall on Monivong (near Street 294) where you can watch fresh Chinese noodles being spun from a ball of dough and feast on huge bowls of soup containing those same noodles. My favourite is Green Beans Fried in Mushrooms – a heavenly preparation of piping hot green beans tossed in oil, salt and garlic – the best treatment I know for a vegetable I’m generally happy to live without. Other favourites include Hot and Spicy Potato Slice (very spicy) and delicious fried or steamed dumplings (pork or vegetarian). And no dish on the menu costs more than $3.
Further down Monivong (near Street 360) is Yi Xian/Snack World, a large, brightly-lit Chinese restaurant with large fish tanks and divine soft shell crabs. They are not on the menu, so you have to gesture wildly, act like a crab or tell them you want “Kadam saw”. We always order at least two plates since one is simply not enough! Other dishes are good (such as the delicious onion cake and the tasty, crispy corn pancake) but it’s the crabs that keep us crawling back for more.
Switching from Chinese to Cambodian, No Problem on Street 163 near 360 looks like your basic beer garden but we take all our visitors there for a super-cheap and super-delicious local feast . The best dish on the menu is the pleah bangkia (a dish usually made with pork but, in this case, made with shrimp and similar to ceviche) – tasty, slightly spicy and very fresh tasting. They also have great stir-fried morning glory (tragkoon) and a hefty menu of Cambodian dishes.
On the other side of town is another of our favourite neighborhood dining spots. Langeach Sros on Street 178 between Norodam and 51 is a large open courtyard restaurant that’s always filled with locals – and we now know why. There’s a delicious fish dish with a great name – Fried Fish on the Fire Lake – which comes to your table presented on a flaming burner simmering in a curry coconut sauce with copious amounts of cabbage, herbs and extra sauce on the side. The bai chaa (fried rice) is delicious, there’s tabletop barbecue and jugs of Angkor beer are only 9,000 riel.
Further down on Street 51, on the corner of Street 200, is a great find for vegetarians, who are often stuck for choice in this carnivorous country. At Mercy House, you’ll sit in a courtyard under large trees and find a menu with such dishes as Frying Rice with Ham or Hamburger with Cheese (all of which, believe it or not, are vegetarian). They also have terrific fruit smoothies and sand ice special desserts (frosty ice-cream-like concoctions). Open only until 5:30pm.
While I’m particularly partial to the food vendors inside the Russian Market, there’s a new place outside the market with something a little different – Japanese. Spring Vale (on the corner of Streets 450 and 135) may not sound very Asian, but the owners are recent imports from Japan and serve some delicious items, many of which I’ve never heard of before. Okonomiyake is a puffy pancake topped with a sprinkling of scallions, tasty sauce and your choice of shrimp, squid or pork and is extremely delicious. The tempura is really good too.
And for the grand-daddy of all local places, there’s Heng Ley. Drive across the Japanese bridge and stop when you see the enormous cut-out statue of a fellow who looks like Charlie Chaplin, embracing a cut-out mannequin. While everything we’ve tasted on the 60-plus page menu has been delicious (don’t miss the fried shrimp with cashews), it’s the entertainment which makes it truly supreme. Located in a space the size of an airplane hangar, the restaurant provides a showcase for a host of performers dressed in fancy gowns (the women, that is) emerging from behind a giant backdrop, singing along to a really cool Cambodian cover band, and providing quite the unforgettable Cambodian experience.