Phnom Penh has made a name for Cambodian food in Chinatown.
In North America, Cambodian food hasn’t achieved the popularity of other Asian cuisines. After eating at Phnom Penh, it’s hard to understand why that’s the case. Open for 21 years, the simple Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurant has won quite a following. Culinary superstars Anthony Bourdain and the late Julia Child have supposedly eaten there. According to our waitress, Cambodian-Americans even make weekend pilgrimages all the way from Seattle.
Muc Tuoi Rang Muoi (C$13.50) is one of Phnom Penh’s most famous dishes, deep-fried squid doused in spicy garlic sauce. Tasty on its own, the crisp mollusk chunks became terrific when dipped in a tangy lemon pepper sauce.
Thit Bo (C$10.50) was another palate pleaser, seared thin-sliced “butter beef” marinated in vinegar sauce, topped with cilantro and heaps of dried garlic. This is not a dish for people who order steak well-done. I’m not convinced the meat in the center of the plate was cooked at all. Still, the beef was tender and delicious, dripping with vinegary, garlicky juices.
Cha Gio Trieu Chau (C$9.85) were deep-fried, but surprisingly light. Piles of fresh crab meat were wrapped in bean curd skins and fried, creating a thin, crispy exterior and a pillowy interior. I’m not sure hoisin and chili sauces were the best partners for the crab meat; I would have preferred fish sauce. Still, the crab rolls themselves were winning.
Cary Ga Nam Vang (C$11.50) was an intriguing yellow curry that arrived in a hot pot with big chunks of on-the-bone chicken thigh and leg, sweet potatoes, and onion. With coconut milk and sweet potato, the curry was fairly sweet, but spicy undertones created a tasty balance. The curry also rendered the chicken so tender, the meat eased off the bone.
All of the food had distinct flavor, but based upon what I ate, and the other dishes on the menu, Cambodian food isn’t inherently spicy. Thus the complimentary dish of fiery chili paste, for diners who crave more heat.
We already paid the check when I spotted Xoi Xim (C$4.50), durian sticky rice. Since durian is unusual Stateside, and I’m so fond of its cousin, mango sticky rice, I couldn’t resist. I can’t say the photo looks appetizing, but topped with a slab of steamed egg white and drenched in coconut milk, the durian-studded rice tasted good.
Durian is a Southeast Asian fruit so stinky that it’s not allowed in hotel rooms or on public transportation in Asia. I’m sure my breath wasn’t exactly rosy after eating the chunks of yellow fruit, which were indeed pungent, but the dish was still worth ordering. My only complaint is that there could have been more durian.
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