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Another Cup of Coffee for the Phnom Penh Road

I rarely get more than five hours sleep in a stretch so I need exactly three large cups of coffee to get me going in the morning. By coffee I mean the black stuff, not a coffee-milk, or a macadamia-carmel latte, or a cup, as Woody Guthrie said, “so thin you could read a newspaper through it.” No, I mean the real thing, a Twin Peaks cuppa Joe, the stronger the better. There was an Armenian body shop on the corner in my Los Angeles neighborhood where I would go to shoot the shit with the boys, and they would serve up a coffee as black as night and as gritty as the mean streets of East Hollywood. That’s a coffee.

So when I moved to Phnom Penh at the beginning of 2005, when Nescafe was still the favored offering at many establishments, finding a haunt offering a good strong cup and a place where I could get my own were high on my list of priorities. Once I found the latter, a nice Lao Arabica from the shop directly across from the south entrance of Orrussey Market, I settled in. At $7/kilo, it’s still my preferred cup for my home brew.

Meanwhile, the coffee world has changed around me. Phnom Penh is not yet Seattle, or even Saigon, but sit-down coffee shops and cafes are seemingly everywhere now. The Singapore-based roaster/distributor Bon Cafe established themselves in Phnom Penh in 1996 and for a long time their coffees were what you saw in all the restaurants and cafes offering an espresso and premium coffee. Java and the Shop served good brews, then came Tea & Coffee and Fresco a few years ago and thereafter have followed a multitude of competitors for the well-healed coffee drinker. Brown Cafe, Gloria Jeans, a Starbucks look-alike on Mao Tse Tung, Coffee Bean soon to open on Monivong.

I’ll tell you right now, call me a dive-monger but I don’t much like these places. They attract people who think that a Macadamia-caramel latte is coffee, and generally speaking, these are not the people I like to spend my cranky morning hours surrounded by. There is also a certain sameness to them. I mean Brown and Fresco and Gloria Jeans have lovely equipment, nicely dressed staff and wi-fi, but most of these places serve precisely the same coffee blends– Lilly, Lavazza, Bon Cafe predominantly. Gloria Jean’s in particular has a wide variety of (non-local) blends but when they were roasted I have no idea. What follows from the use of these imported coffees is that a cup is expensive, like USA expensive. A large Americano, that is, a cup of coffee without milk, at Brown Cafe is $3.00. Generally speaking, that’s a lot to spend when there are alternatives and there certainly are in Phnom Penh.

First, at the bottom of the price scale there are the local cafes. Generally, cheap grade Viet or Cambodian Robusta is ground, put in a muslin-like bag and hot water poured through up to three times, into a pot. Several pounds of sugar are then added to each tiny cup and served to you for 1000r. Being that there is one of these cafes two doors from my house, this is not a bad alternative, especially when I’m in need a a plate of pork and rice as well. If I have no beans at home many times I’ll bring over the thermos and get four shots of the sugary liquid.

There are some standouts in this category, two of which I know in the Russian Market area. At the corner of 163 and 432 is a guy who roasts his own beans (with added rendered pig fat) and serves up a good one. Inside the market in one corner of the food court is a fellow who proudly proclaims the best iced coffee in Phnom Penh. Ice coffee is not my thing, but a good case could be made.

Another local cafe is CoffeeCafe and it offers fantastic value. Located just down the street from Sovanna Shopping Center at 414 and 199, here a large Americano goes for 2500R using beans that are fresh-roasted by the good people at Three Corners. It’s a Robusta blend they serve – an Arabica/Robusta blend is for sale in bags – but I’ll tell you what, it is one of the finest cups in town and in terms of value it’s off the scale. If I go out for a cup (no food offered) this is where I go. The Three Corners Roasters coffee is on offer at a handful of other places around town (including Topaz and Malis) and is worth seeking out.

Second, there the American restaurants which serve up a bottomless cup (or second cup free). I say American because I don’t know of any other places that do this and it is an established American diner tradition. California 2 and Lone Star offer a bottomless cup of drip coffee in that diner tradition, so when it’s volume you need on a tough morning, these are fine options. No, not the finest coffees, but they get the job done at a fair price.

Lastly, there’s the brew your own option. All the traditional Italians are here now, so if a cup of Lilly or Lavazza is what floats your boat at home, that can be yours for a mere $24/kilo or so from the supermarkets like Thai Huot or Lucky. Though you haven’t asked, I would advise against this. You can buy some Cambodian coffees, such as the Three Corners Arabica-Robusta blend mentioned above, which is for sale now at Lucky at $4.30/250g. It’s a pretty good coffee and proceeds from the sale of it benefit a local charity.

My favored alternative, as noted at the start, is the Special Lao Arabica sold at the shop which looks out at Orrussey Market from the south. At $7/kilo it’s a winner. Grind your own beans in a spice grinder, get a French press and enjoy a beautiful cup for pennies. Or you could go for the $3.00+ Macadamia-Caramel latte. At least you’ve got the choice.

Into the valley below.


(Khmer Street coffee photo courtesy of Allan Soutaris)

25 thoughts on “Another Cup of Coffee for the Phnom Penh Road

  • theboss

    What….no mention of Browns ?


    Best cafe(s) in town.

  • Peter Hogan

    I had a large latte to go from the riverside Fresco yesterday. The coffee was excellent, but at $3.40 my wallet hurt for the rest of the day.

  • You took my Khmer street coffee photo! Third photo down is from my Crikey blog!
    Glad it’s been put to other uses.

    • Peter Hogan

      Oops. Sorry, Al. We’ve just added a credit.

  • gavinmac

    I don’t drink coffee, but I enjoyed the article.

  • Jeff Mudrick

    Hey theboss, Brown was mentioned twice. It’s a nice place, as I said. I simply prefer to go elsewhere. I can’t afford three cups of coffee at Brown.

  • doti

    Who would drink an Americano at Brown?

  • lance

    great article, ill check out three corner today. also inside orussey there is a small stand that sells a variety of kilos from east cambodia, laos, and vietnam for 6/7 dollars a kilo.

  • frank

    where do you buy fresh milk, need my latte.

  • barforsalecambodia

    It’s true there’s a lot of choice out there. WildWoods on Street 172 behind Wat Ounaloum is my choice. Great tasting coffee at a very reasonable price close to the riverside.

  • Dermot Sheehan

    Isn’t it about $5 for a coffee in Gloria Jeans?

  • Archer

    I’ll second CoffeeCafe as an excellent spot for a cup. Its unpretentious, with few thrills, barring the 42′ TV, but very clean. The coffee is fresh, STRONG, and the very fairly priced. The owners are very hospitable and western friendly, they went out of their way to help me out once. I don’t get out that way often but if you do check it out.

  • BillyB

    Surely you mean “Illy” coffee, not “Lilly”!

  • Pajama

    Great article, looking forward to trying Coffee cafe as I work nearby at Intercon saturday mornings. (BTW, if you innocently order a coffee in the lobby of Intercon whilst awaiting a friend, it costs $5. And sux).

    I do not frequent Comme a la Maison much, but they have some of the best coffee I’ve had in the country. The manager told me it’s from Cambodia, so maybe it’s just the way they brew it? Forgot how much it costs but not more than $2. Worth a try if you’re in the neighborhood, and mornings after the breakfast rush it’s quite nice and quiet.

    • Peter Hogan

      Slightly off topic (well not so much as bread and coffee often sit well together) but Comme a la Maison do absolutely the best traditional long thin baguettes in town with a lovely crisp crust.

  • plumbersteve

    I arrved in PNP about two years ago, and because of the lack off good coffee houses [at that time] I carried my expresso machine over from OZ,as hand luggage. Only problem I have had is the local grown coffee blocks up the strainer/coffee holder as the beans are roasted with palm oil and leaves a residue. i buy coffee from Ko Fi on Mao Tsa Toung for around $15/kg. Works well

  • michoacan

    Chez Lipp on Monivong near Calmette Hospital makes very strong Cafe Khmer. Also good for stripping paint.

  • Tried Fresco and Brown’s today. Enjoyed the vanilla soy latte (clearly, not your cuppa) at Brown’s. Only $2.25, which I thought was good for a soy latte. 😉

  • Dave

    I gave CoffeeCafe a try today…superb! Had a Americano: beans ground to order and super fresh. And a Cappuccino: excellent! Properly steamed milk and only 0.75c (3000Reil) Bargain and top quality.
    Thanks for the tip.

  • When I get coffee, I prefer espresso, and usually just one cup. I rarely use syrup or sugar. Not a fan of izzy or Lavazza.

    I rather like Browns. They use La Marzocco espresso machines, do a great job with their milk, and have nice crema. Brown on 51 has a syphon brewer option, which produces a nice cup of coffee.

    Jars of Clay offers a French press. The coffee is average, but I rather like presses.

    I like Gloria Jean’s. Not as much as Browns, but it’s above average.

    The Terrace (with there quasi-Starbucks logo) has decent espresso. They need to work on their milk steaming though.

    Went to T&C once. It was cheaper, and the Americano tasted decent.

    Have tried Three Corners bagged coffee. Didn’t like what I tried. Maybe their fresh roasted stuff is better.

    Drinking a Fresco Flat White at the moment. They use illy, and I’d rate the taste as a little below average. Crema looks nice though.

    Went to Java Cafe once. After I had to remind them to make my drink, they then burned the milk on my latte. It was undrinkable.

  • Trung Nguyen coffee from Vietnam one of the best in the world IMHO

  • Meas sreypov

    Hello! I am Sreypov. I work for a Quantum Publicity Company. We work on the news video for CNC news channel. I am really glade with your shop. I would like to be there in one day. Because it’s very famous in Phnom Penh city. Am i right? if you don’t mind me I would like to create a documentary about your shop. Is it alright to you? Hope to see your reply soon. Thanks

  • Pingback: Phnom Penh Coffee Wars 2013 |

  • Have just tried a very few, but the java latte (2.75$ i think) was the best so far…

    I have been a strong coffee drinker since the age of 5, and i drink possible more than a liter per day…
    After Ive been through all the espresso makers, from francis to the ECM finally, i sold the stuff…
    the taste is not worth the hype in preparation nor the money – to me…

    Ive been back to the roots – with drip-coffee – already years ago…
    actually, im having just some teespoons of coffee powder in the cup, and add hot water… stirr, and then add the cold milk…

    for me it doesnt have to be a espresso, though the hot steamed/foamed milk makes also a dripped coffee even better 🙂 …

    thanks for all the recommendations…

  • stormcaller

    JM, would you know the name of the shop that sells the Lao Arabica?


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