Between the main expat hubs of BKK1 and Russian Market there is the Toul Sleng area – a neighbourhood with a diverse mix of Khmer, Vietnamese and barang inhabitants. There, you’ll find a handful of underrated and unknown restaurants and cafes. Mostly, they are family-run establishments serving homemade fare to ardent regulars. So skirt around the bad vibes of Toul Sleng, past frowning backpacker babes struggling to come to terms with their own privilege, and take a seat in some of Phnom Penh’s best kept secrets.
Sweet and Spicy, Street 360
Located opposite the fire station and marked by a bright orange sign, this family-run Korean restaurant is always packed out with Koreans after a taste of home. The interior is clean and comfortable with more orange-painted walls. They say orange is the colour of positivity and in this case it is appropriate because the menu is delicious and reasonably priced. Hell, it’s underpriced when you consider the Kimchi is made in Phnom Penh by the waitress’ grandmother – yup, that’s grandmother Kimchi and it comes free with most orders. Top choice for diners is the Kimbab – Korean sushi rolls containing either tuna or vegetables and are a snip at $3 for a plate along with the complimentary Kimchi and pickles. Also recommended is the Bimbdibab, a cold rice and salad dish with ground pork at a mere $5.
Just round the corner from Sweet and Spicy, opposite the white sign for Toul Sleng, is a coconut shop. Inside, by small mountains of coconuts sit a few boys with machetes hacking away. Another has a circular sander used to blast the crust from the hairy ones. They sell in bulk to the trade and as such, if you know a little Khmer you can get a nice, cold, fresh coconut for 2000 riel.
Next along the road is Bubbles Tea – a bubble tea and ice cream shop. Inside the bright red walls and cool air conditioning make the experience rather like walking into a giant watermelon. It’s probably the only place in town where you can confuse your taste buds with bacon and egg flavor ice cream, something straight out of Heston Blumenthal’s world. The wifi is fast so it’s a good spot to sit back and catch up on social media if not quite comfortable enough to pursue more serious work. The Macha tea is a mere $1.50 and sure, it’s been stepped on and cut with milk powder and sugar, but it still provides a gentler buzz than coffee. Just remember to order it without sugar if you want to avoid getting immediate diabetes. But you could try adding some chewy aloe balls and, for the full effect, taking a selfie while sitting on your Scoopy because we all want to be a cute Asian girls, no? Well, just me then.
Hi Ba Ri
A favourite with Japanese expats, this soul food restaurant is a far cry from fancy sushi creations. It’s Japanese diner food: filling, fatty and delicious. The owner is always manning a giant hotplate while dancing an imitation Michael Jackson and flipping Japanese pizzas. What’s a Japanese pizza? Well, they get two flour tortillas and fill them with noodles, bacon and cabbage and fry them with some kind of delicious sauce and then cover them with melted cheese. It is as delicious as it sounds. The Teriyaki chicken is a healthier option with hunks of lean chicken meat fried in the traditional way with a bowl of Miso soup and rice on the side. Just take your patience with you as service can be a little slow.
Toul Sleng Restaurant
What it lacks in nomenclatural originality it makes up for in fresh, healthy food. It’s probably the best of the variety of Khmer restaurant where you turn up and point at one of several pots containing soup or fried vegetables to eat with rice. There are three pots to choose from made fresh that morning by the proprietor’s mother. Yes, again, this is grandmother food: unassuming, delicious and healthy. Khmer food is pretty healthy when done well. It is mostly soup, rice, vegetables – not a lot of fat, and if they used brown rice instead of white it might be near perfect, nutritionally speaking. Every day the selection is different but they do an amazing Tom Yam and classic Khmer fish soup. On top of that they give incredibly generous portions of rice which makes a change from the yoghurt-pot sized provided by similar outlets. Just arrive early or the locals will have eaten all the best dishes.
The one thing the Toul Sleng neighbourhood lacked until recently was espresso. Now there is Sor Coffee, on 360. Naturally, after breakfast at Sweet and Spicy, or lunch at the Toul Sleng restaurant, one might stroll down the road and sit in their air-conditioned goldfish bowl of a café. The coffee quality is better than Joma and worse than Brown and nowhere near the heights of Feel Good. But hey, what are you going to do? It’s not grainy stepped-on robusta served in a chipped cup like its post-war London and that’s the main thing. They even do cakes.