With all the great Chinese food in nearby Richmond, British Columbia, it turns out that Cambodian and Vietnamese food might actually be the best find in Vancouver's Chinatown. The locals seem to know it, judging by the lines that form most days at the popular Phnom Penh restaurant. A crowded dining room means you might be sharing a table with strangers, though that turns out to be a blessing in disguise, as it gives you a chance to consult with your neighbors on the 127-item menu.
That said, let me help you narrow your choices. Nearly every group gets the Phnom Penh Deep-Fried Chicken Wings ($8.25 for a small order, $12.95 for a large), and so should you. It's easy to be skeptical, but I assure you that these wings are some of the best in the city. A small order (pictured) yields four large wings, fried with the lightest of batter. The meat remains incredibly moist, and the batter has faint notes of salt, pepper, and sugar (and probably MSG). Fried garlic and green onion are sprinkled in, and you can steal a bit of cilantro for a fresh counterpoint.
The expertly fried chicken is just half of the equation. Accompanying the bird is a unique dipping sauce that's little more than lemon juice laced with black and white pepper. The sauce isn't overpowering, but it punches up the chicken with its peppery, citrusy tang. Taken together, the wings and sauce are simply a perfect combination, cause alone to line up at Phnom Penh.
To make a full meal, I recommend going off-menu with the Filet Beef Luc Lac on Fried Rice with Egg ($12.95). You'll find Filet Beef Luc Lac on Rice on the menu, and below it the option to add an egg for 45 cents more (a no-brainer), but if you ask nicely, you can get the fried rice upgrade. I like the smokiness that Phnom Penh's seasoned woks impart to the fried rice, and the slightly sweet chunks of Chinese sausage.
The plate comes with a generous portion of beef, cooked soft and tender, with a somewhat thick sauce that's both sweet and savory. It's made, I'm told, partially from oyster, soy, and fish sauces, along with sugar in the marinade. (If you want a fuller impact from sauce, order the filet beef luc lac with white rice.) The runny egg is a no-brainer for adding richness to an already satisfying lunch plate.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.