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Phnom Penh report -- long

foodfirst | Mar 16, 2004 12:20 AM

We'd been warned to expect some tasty, but no blow-your-socks-off delicious, food in Phnom Penh and a long wknd in the city proved this to be, for the most part, the case. First dinner at Khmer Surin (from the Khmer, not Thai menu) was fine but nothing special. Another dinner at Baan Thai was better. We asked for extra heat and when our somtam arrived with nary a chile fleck we complained (nicely) to the waitress. She whisked it away and 10 minutes later a new version arrived, excellent lime-fish sauce-very spicy balance. And all dishes that followed were sufficiently hot. Very good basil chicken and a sour, shrimp paste-y gaeng som ("yellow curry" on the menu, I think), thick broth marred only by too much woody water cabbage.

Some reasonably delicious late-breakfast noodles accompanied by sugar cane juice, at an *extremely* popular corner restaurant on Preah 144 about 2-3 blocks from the river. You cannot miss the place for the crowds if you go by 10am. The Chinese-Cambodian son of the owner told us to head to Phreah 136 (near Central Market, Total station on the corner) for Chinese jiaozi and noodles, which we did a few hours later.

Started at Peking Canteen. Our order of shuijiao (boiled dumplings), stir-fried lettuce, and liangban huanggua (cool cucumber with garlic) was greeted with an unsmiling grunt and the dishes nearly flung on the table. Jiaozi filling good -- pork with plenty of garlic greens --- but the dumplings were overboiled and soggy. Everything else fine, lettuce garlicky and authentically oily (not a bad thing IMO). I was intrigued by the lamb-stuffed baozi on a wall listing, and the big wall menu included spicy cold noodles .... but the service was just a little too mid-80s-Chinese staterun-restaurant for my taste.

We waddled next door to try the dumplings at NorthEast Dumpling restaurant. Enthusiastic greeting, friendly service, and the dumplings were a little better --- not overboiled, and with a fragrant stuffing heavy on the Chinese celery. I might go back here and explore a bit more. A wall sign offered Shandong-style sour vegetable soup (the owners are from Shandong).

As we moto taxi'd away after lunch I noticed a spot a bit further up Ph 136 advertising daoshao mian (hand-cut noodles) and chuan cai (Sichuan dishes). We returned next lunch to China Restaurant and were extremely pleased with the noodles --- thick and slippery and delighfully unevenly cut (offered in soup with beef, pork, or pig stomach), and also with the shuijiao. Perfect (to my taste) thick skin, boiled just right to leave a bit of "chew", pork and garlic chive stuffing. A plate of cool, gingery suanla baicai (sour and hot pickled cabbage) is complementary and readily replaced as it's finished. Hand-pulled noodles, pan-fried/steamed jiaozi, and dandan mian are also on the menu (though the chef told us that the dandan mian, though delicious, are "not Chengdu spicy delicious"). The place is owned by two friendly sisters and a brother (he cooks) from Chengdu and the menu holds promise: "boiled" beef, a spicy ma-la stew-type thing; lazi jiding, or chicken pieces stir-fried with whole dried chiles; mapo dofu, etc. Eight Sichuan expats happily chowing at the next table. This place also sells, from a little case at the front, jarred chile sauces (one from Chengdu) and spiced Chinese sausage from Sichuan. Don't know if the proprietors speak English but there is an English menu.

We had some decent Indian at (I think) Mt. Everest Restaurant, on Sihanouk. We stopped in bec. the place looked to be packed with Nepalis and Indians. The naan was outstanding, wheaty and gluteny and toasty from the tandoor. And the Deauville Bar and Restaurant near Wat Phnom really *does* -- true to its advertisement in local papers and mags -- serve the stiffest drink in town (perhaps in Asia). The Elephant Bar at the Raffles is packed at Happy Hour and although the salsa served with taro chips is really very good (though not too spicy), cocktails seem to be made with a fraction of a shot.

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