Hand-Pull Noodle Soup at Chinese Noodle
All day and night, a noodle guy swings, slaps, pounds, stretches and cuts strips of dough in front of this restaurant. Chewy, silky, and springy, the noodles land in big bowls of rich pork broth. There’s an assortment of meat toppings available (beef, pork, duck, seafood, pig stomach), but I think the best of the bunch is earthy mushrooms and a handful of just-cooked greens. I like to add a few shakes of Chinese black vinegar and a spoonful of hot chili oil.
Chinese Noodle Restaurant: 551 and 553 Monivong, Phnom Penh; 012-937-805
Nem Loeung at Ratanakiri
These meatballs are made from a mix of ground pork and fish, but with secret seasoning inside and sweet soy glaze on the outside, they just taste good. Skewers are served with a small bowl of lightly picked green mango, carrots, cucumber, and ginger—make sure you eat the slaw and the meatballs together. An order of nem loeung makes a great prelude to a bowl of samlaw machou prey, Ratanakiri’s take on Cambodian sour soup.
Ratanakiri: 123 Sihanouk, Phnom Penh; 023 312 318 / 012 973 716
Salad Fermière at Comme à la Maison
This salad would be at home in any American bar/grill, but here’s what makes it special: Juicy shards of fresh roasted chicken, both white and dark meat. Medium-cooked egg, with yolk that’s just runny enough to mingle with everything else in the bowl. Fried potatoes, with crunchy outsides and creamy insides. Each of these is a contrast to the crisp greens, carrots and onions that fill in the bowl. Add homemade shallot vinaigrette, plus a basket of freshly baked baguette on the side. Make sure you sit a table in the garden.
Comme à la Maison: 13-15 Street 57, Phnom Penh; 023-360-801 / 012-951-869; www.commealamaison-delicatessen.com
Bánh Xèo at Magnolia
This Vietnamese pancake is so enormous it hangs off the plate. Magnolia’s oversized bánh xèo are stuffed with your choice of ground pork, chicken, mushrooms, or tofu, plus crunchy bean sprouts—every filling I’ve tried has been excellent. The dough is chewy where it surrounds the filling and has deliciously crispy edges beyond. The pancake is accompanied by a small garden’s worth of lettuce leaves, cucumber slices, and herbs including mint, basil, fishwort, and sawtooth. Tear off a piece of pancake, tuck it into a lettuce leaf, add herbs, roll everything up, and dip it in a mix of sweet fish sauce, shredded carrots, peanuts and chilies. Eat. Lick your fingers. Repeat.
Magnolia: 55 Pasteur (Street 51), corner of Street 242, Phnom Penh; 012-529-977
Barbecued Beef and Pork at Sovanna
Remember those old Looney Tunes cartoons that pictured a smell as a hand made out of smoke? And it tickled someone’s nose, pulling him toward the scent? That’s what I think the smell is doing to me every time I walk by Sovanna. Thin cuts of beef and pork hit enormous grills in front of the restaurant and arrive at your table with just the right amount of char. While you’re waiting for the meat to arrive, make your dipping sauce from the ingredients waiting on the table: squeeze fresh limes over ground pepper and salt, add sliced garlic and bird’s eye chilies. As you eat the meat, drink plenty of beer, served Cambodian style over ice. Feel content with your lot in life.
If you’re looking for breakfast, Sovanna is also the home of killer bai sach chrouk.
Sovanna: 2C Street 21, Phnom Penh; 012-840-055
Char Kreung at K’nyay
Cambodia is a meat-loving country, but there’s a growing vegetarian scene in Phnom Pehn. At K’nyay everything is vegan, with an option of adding fish to some dishes. This rich curry, one of the most satisfying and complex I’ve eaten here, is made with tofu, long beans, cauliflower, green peppers, onions and carrots, cooked with an herb paste that includes galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, garlic and shallots, plus coconut milk and a spicy hit of red chilies.
K’nyay: 25K Suramarit Boulevard (down the alley), Phnom Penh; 023-225-225; www.knyay.com
Fresh Fruit at Anise
I can’t write about Cambodia without talking about how fantastically sweet, fresh, and perfect the fruit is. Pineapples are sweeter and less acidic, bananas taste like a creamier, more banana-y version of themselves, and the mangoes are the stuff of dreams. Great fruit is available everywhere, and many restaurants will offer a pretty plate for dessert, like this one from Anise, which serves a particularly stellar mix.
Anise: 2C Street 278, Phnom Penh; 023-222-522 / 012-730-099; anisehotel.com.kh
Crispy Rice Noodle Salad with Tofu and Spring Rolls at Romdeng
Housed in a gorgeous old colonial building with a garden and a pool, Romdeng is one of the most atmospheric restaurants in Phnom Penh. Plus, you’re doing good by eating there: it’s part of the Mith Samlanh NGO, which helps former street youth by training them in vocational skills.
Luckily, the food is just as good as the atmosphere and the mission. This crispy noodle salad is one of several delicious meals I’ve eaten at Romdeng—you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. Thin rice noodles are tossed with tofu and shredded carrots and peppers, and topped with handfuls of fresh mint, basil and other herbs, peanuts, and a lightly sweet and savory dressing. The noodles on the top of the heap stay crunchy, while the ones at the bottom soften in the dressing and you can slurp them like a delicious cold picnic salad. On the side are spring rolls filled with mashed taro: who doesn’t love a little extra crunch with their salad?
Romdeng: 74 Street 174, Phnom Penh; 092-219-565; www.romdeng-restaurant.org
Ice Cream and Sorbet at Blue Pumpkin
This Cambodian mini-chain, with branches around Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, has quickly become one of my favorite ice cream scoops. Flavors, especially the fruit sorbets, are bright and clean. Current favorites are caramel and cashew, with a fantastic burnt-sugar base and pockets of nuts and runny caramel, and mango sorbet, which tastes like a basket of perfectly ripe fruit was just blended and frozen. Other winners are sweet-tart passion fruit, refreshing green lemon and kaffir lime, and tangy yogurt with raspberry.
Blue Pumpkin: 245 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh; 023-998-153 / 012-523-310; www.tbpumpkin.com
Crab with Kampot Pepper at Kimly
About 100 miles south of Phnom Penh is the coastal town Kep—the Hamptons of Cambodia—and just inland, on the river, is Kampot. Together, these two towns produce a destination-worthy dish: crab with fresh pepper. Kampot is renowed for its peppercorns, which are sold dried worldwide. In Cambodia you can eat the pepper in fresh green sprigs, which have a mild bite and a delicate crunch. At the Kep crab market, restaurants hang out over the bay, crab traps bob beneath, and the seafood stays in the sea until you order it. These crabs are Kimly’s signature dish: sautéed with fresh Kampot pepper plus lemongrass, ginger, chili and coconut milk.
Kimly: Waterfront Crab Market, Kep; 012-435-096