That’s the response you’ll usually get if you tell people that you’ve never been to Phnom Penh. Personally, I thought everyone had eaten at or at least heard of Phnom Penh by now given that the food is usually regarded as some of the best Asian cuisine in town, reflected by the wall of awards you’re greeted by when you walk in. I thought that basically anyone that loves food in Vancouver has already stuffed their faces with butter beef and dry pho. I thought I wouldn’t have to write anything on what is sure to be my twenty-somethingith visit to Phnom Nom Penh but since there are still apparently crack wings unbelievers out there, I thought I’d write a sequel.
Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
Phnom Penh is located in Vancouver’s Chinatown, which tells you two things: you’re probably going to have to pay for parking and you probably don’t want to leave any valuables in your car. Several years ago, when I made my first Phnom Penh visit with John Chow, I returned to the car park to my car to find it broken into. I think the fact that I still return to eat at Phnom Penh (driving most of the time) is testament to how good the food is. Not even a smashed door can keep me from those wings!
And I’m not the only one either. Phnom Penh is one of the busiest joints in town and like the other Vancouver culinary hotspots, getting a table during the lunch and dinner rush possibly means long wait times. It isn’t unusual to see a big crowd waiting for tables, peering at those eating through the windows if the line has overflowed outdoors, so they can gauge how long they’re going to be standing.
It’s the same great hole-in-the-wall, homestyle restaurant atmosphere that tells you that interior design takes a backseat to good food around here. At Phnom Penh, like many Asian restaurants, the experience is derived entirely from the food. Ambiance, decor, service (although reasonably quick for a busy place)…all completely irrelevant and forgettable. The food is all the matters here.
The menu says “Exotic Cambodian and Vietnamese cuisine (Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia). If I’m honest, I really don’t know what the difference is and couldn’t tell you which menu item is from where. If you do, let me know in the comments below. All I can tell you is that it’s all delicious.
When I think of Phnom Penh, I think of a particular trifecta of dishes: deep fried chicken wings, butter beef and Phnom Penh dry egg noodles. Every visit just starts with these…they’re just essential dining at Phnom Penh and probably the most popular items on the menu. Each time I sit down and open that menu, I try to convince myself to order something else but just can’t do it. I mean, I can order in addition to but not as a substitute since these are just so damn good.
The wings ($8.25 for a small order, $12.95 for a large) are the main event. Deep fried to crispy, juicy perfection. These things are like fireworks in your mouth and they’re elevated even further by the simple dip of lime juice and pepper. I can’t tell you how good these are but they’re one of my favorite foods in Vancouver, right up there with BBQ pork at HK BBQ Master or the Aburi Salmon Oshi Sushi at Miku.
I’m sure they’re dusted with cocaine or something because you simply can’t get enough of them. Actually, I’m pretty sure they’re dusted with MSG but whatever…they’re amazing. Be careful or you might find yourself pawning your TV for some more.
The marinated butter beef ($13.25) isn’t quite up to the deep fried chicken wings but despite looking like a bad sci-fi movie prop, this stuff tastes like nothing else.
Scoop up some of the greens, garlic and soak it in that vinegary sauce and you have a perfect mix of sour, bitter, and savoury. It’s got the freshness of the cilantro, the crispy fried garlic and the bloody, juicy goodness of that rare beef. So much flavour with every bite.
There are several variations on noodles at Phnom Penh but I stick with the Phnom Penh dry egg noodles ($6.50), which comes with, as you can see above, prawns, pork, pork innards, ground pork and dried shrimp.
That might not sound great but the liver totally works here and everything mixed together makes for a great bowl of noodles. They come with a bowl of “soup” on the side, which is just some really salty water with some pork bones floating around. I throw a splash or two of the broth into my noodles.
There’s a lot of sodium flying around this meal so you should probably get a plate or two of vegetables to go with all that deep fried awesome. Luckily, at Phnom Penh, even the vegetables are tasty. My friends and I are partial to the sauteed pea tips ($13.95), these delicately sweet and aromatic greens are harvested from snow peas. They’re sort of on the expensive side but sauteed with some garlic, they’re lush, silky and soaked with flavor.
Because we weren’t satisfied with only one dish (well, two…technically) from the deep fried food group, we also got a plate of the Phnom Penh spicy garlic squid ($8.95 for a small, $15.50 large). Not as spectacular as the wings but the same great coating on some fresh, tender slices of squid with loads of garlic everywhere. It’s not super spicy but there is a little heat to the squid.
Summary: I feel like I’m not giving you guys any new information but just reaffirming the fact that this restaurant is awesome. Phnom Penh is one of my favorites (a whole lot of other people’s favorite too) in the city and the deep fried chicken wings are on the shortlist for my last meal. Complete the holy trinity with a bowl of special dry egg noodles and a plate of
exploded alien marinated butter beef, two dishes so good that I can’t help but order them each time I go. I haven’t tried too many other dishes on the menu but they’ve never put something in front of me I haven’t enjoyed. If you’re from out of town, this is a true diamond-in-the-rough but it’s no secret amongst locals.