Jeff Mudrick reviews Phnom Penh’s two newest middle-eastern eateries.
Little Armenia, where I resided before coming to Cambodia overlaps Thai Town in the east Hollywood district of Los Angeles. It can be a dangerous place, more particularly a place where people live and die over falafel. Some of the years I lived in the neighborhood the corner of Vermont and Sunset Boulevard saw more murders than any corner in Compton or anywhere else you might imagine would be blessed with a bunch of murderers.
Not all these murders were falafel related, admittedly most met their fate as a result of drug deals gone bad or gang disputes. But just one major intersection away from Murderers Row, at Normandie and Sunset stood and still stands the original Zankou Chicken, the stuff of legend, its legendary status attributable to three things, one of them quite messy and falafel related. In no particular order:
(1) The musician Beck, who lived just up the road and who I saw peform before he ever made a record, was often seen wearing a Zankou Chicken T-shirt and a curious reference to Zankou appears in his song “Debra” which appeared on his Midnight Vultures album. Thus: “I wouldn’t do you like that Zankou Chicken, cuz only you’ve got a thing I just got to get with.” Ok I have no idea what that’s about either. However,
(2) Zankou served some of the best garlic sauced chicken and superfine falafel in the universe, the falafel delivered from hot oil right in front of you to your plate or pita in a unimaginably quick and exceedingly satisfactory manner. I ate there a lot, like ‘a couple times a week over a dozen years’ a lot. The pitas did come out of a package but what went into those pitas was so spectacular it was easy to overlook this small flaw which no doubt helped keep Zankou prices reasonable and facilitated the growth of a Zankou empire. That growth, perhaps like that of Angkor, was simply too much for the system to handle, for:
(3) In 2003 Zankou’s patriarch, Madiros Iskenderian, an Armenian who had come to the U.S via Lebanon shot and killed his own mother and sister then turned the gun on himself. Some say the tragedy followed a heated possibly falafel-related argument, some say his cancer got the best of his brain. We’ll never know. His widow and son battled for control of the Zankou Empire, ultimately Balkanizing said empire into two opposing Zankou camps, an upper and lower Chenla you might say in Cambodian terms, Hollywood at war with Glendale. It was not pretty. A pall descended over larger Little Armenia, and nobody needs that.
It was then I decided to leave Los Angeles.
With the greatest of falafel hopes I descended on Petra for lunch accompanied by two friends, one born in the Levant and a knower of all things falafel, and another who wasn’t and isn’t but is a good food guy to have along in any case. Petra, located at 8A Street 288 in BKK1 and occupying a whole villa is quite imposing from the street and is without question a lovely restaurant. My lunch companions and I were greeted by smiling staff dressed in traditional Arab garb. Pretty sweet I thought. Both patio and inside seating are available, we chose inside but the outside looked quite appealing as well. Booth quarters were a tad snug for the larger proportioned among us but basically it’s a very comfortable and attractive environment which awaits, and with three additional floors available, including one dedicated to shisha ($9-$10.50), you’ll not likely not get shut out for lack of space. The menu at Petra is quite extensive, dishes ranging from $4.50-$12.50, and nothing we ordered fell into the “no have” category which is often a feature of newish places with large menus.
The beloved falafel (four for $4.50 with pita) was one of the first dishes up. It was, unfortunately, disappointing in multiple respects. First, rather than appearing in the form of hand shaped orbs, the buggers appeared in the guise of form-made pucks. Now I’m sure this guarantees consistency of size and appearance, but that appearance was not attractive. The flavor and texture of the pucks was meh, a bit dry and dense with no crispness on the exterior to suggest that the pucks might recently have been removed from a hot oil bath. Not terrible, but far from great. The pitas were unusual in taste and appearance, not looking very wheaty, not better or worse than the wheat pita pocket I’m used to, just different. The accompanying sauce was fine but the hummus, to be ordered on the side at $4.50, was not to our liking.
Two of the three of us are fans enough of hummus that we make it at home and both of us preferred our own to Petra’s ultra creamy and rather bland garlic-deprived version. The non-hummus maker among us subsequently dived into a bit of my homemade stuff and confirmed our prior diagnosis that Petra’s suffered in the comparison.
The balance of the dishes at Petra were satisfying if not memorable. Shish Tawook was good, a nice balance of flavors, but lacking a bit of zip. Prawns in a tomato based sauce with yellow rice were pretty good, the prawns fresh but again that lack of kick in the sauce was somewhat disappointing. More garlic all around was the local consensus. Sambosak (spinach and cheese in a spring roll like unit) was pretty good and if I were to return I’d probably revisit that selection. Our lamb kebabs were ok but not outstanding. My traditional Arab drink made from hibiscus flowers, fruity in flavor and not too sweet, was very nice.
And nice is the best any of us could do with Petra. We three were in agreement that although everything was decent there was nothing we tasted that would bring us back for a return visit. Except perhaps the uniforms, ambience, and the desire for something a little out of the ordinary, especially with a Khmer friend who might not come in with many expectations about the food itself. No alcohol is served.
Turkish Delight, on Street 172 at 19 in what some people refer to as the new Lake district or the backpacker quarter, is something else entirely. Nothing fancy here, befitting the neighborhood Turkish Delight is unassuming in appearance. So unassuming in fact that driving by you may vary well miss it as my friends have even with its neon sign. There are a couple of tables outside with a bird’s eye view of the very busy street, less than a handful inside the non-air con main dining area whose bird’s eye view is the kitchen itself. In this case this is not a bad thing as the Turkish owner is doing the cooking himself and is an amiable chap and obviously accomplished in his chef’s duties. His skills as chef may exceed those of management as the menus were missing items they should have contained (like the falafel I came for) and he was closed one night he should have been opened for lack of staff. Be that as it may, I ended up eating solo at Turkish Delight twice and it is a place I would go back to. But not for the falafel.
On my first visit to Turkish Delight, having been caught off guard by the falafel hole in the menu, I ordered the lamb sandwich in a homemade Turkish bread and I found it very satisfying. I’d order it or its chicken/beef sister/brother again. Just before the sandwich arrived the owner discovered I’d come for the falafel and he offered it up but I decided I’d return for the falafel. Service points for the offer to change the order late in the game.
Turkish D’s version of falafel is traditional in appearance, rough spheres obviously hand made, none of this machined puck nonsense. How it is served was unlike any version I’ve previously consumed, and I have to say this kabab-on-a-plate as Turkish Delight calls it was quite impressive in appearance, looking more like a huge Turkish burrito than any falafel plate I’d ever seen. And it tasted pretty darned good…except, dammit for the falafel itself which was disconcertingly gooey in texture. I’ve cooked falafel before and it’s not a walk in the park to get it just right but even though they looked good sitting there in the kitchen display much as I wanted to like it this was a miss in my book. The wheat wrap and usual accompaniments were all very good so when I go back, and I surely will, I’ll order the chicken or lamb version which I’m reasonably confident I’ll enjoy much more. Turkish Delight is open for dinner only and closed Sundays. Alcohol is available.
As it stands, after almost nine years of falafel-chasing in Phnom Penh, the best I’ve had was not at any of the Lebanese places which have come and gone and come again in various venues with mostly the same characters, but at the now deceased (or at best moribund) Lakeside. Alas, the Falafel Cafe suffered through a change of ownership some time ago which did not serve the falafel well. Second best, to my delight and surprise I had just recently at Alma, the Mexican restaurant near Tuol Tompoung as a one off lunch special. And as far as I know, no one had to be killed to pull it off.
Petra can be found at #8A Street 288, BKK1, Phnom Penh
Turkish Delight can be found on Street 172, Phnom Penh