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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Phnom Penh

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IMG_7227 copy IMG_7232 copyAfter hearing so much about this place from friends, I finally had the chance to try Phnom Penh last week. I did have a brief taste of it a few years back when Rich and I volunteered as tour guides in Chinatown. It was one of the stops on our tour and we got to sample some of their food – I think it was spring rolls or something like that.
At the time, this unassuming restaurant didn’t really catch my attention. As I rarely venture into that part of Chinatown, I never felt the urge to specifically go back to try their actual dishes. Then over the years, it seemed like more and more friends were recommending it – especially their famed chicken wings. Now, as you may know, Rich is vehemently opposed to anything chicken-related, so this restaurant was put on the back burner. I certainly didn’t want to go there and have a full plate of fried chicken wings by myself. Last week, Rich’s parents came back from Hong Kong for Chinese New Year, and we were looking for a place to eat. I suggested Phnom Pehn – so off we went to Chinatown.
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IMG_7223 copy It is located on one of the quieter streets of Chinatown – with less vegetable and meat shops around it. Yet at night, the bright red banner really stood out on a street full of closed shops (most stores in Chinatown close at 5PM). We went on a Thursday night, which is traditionally not the busiest night for a restaurant. Not the case at Phnom Penh. Luckily, Rich’s sister had gotten there before us and put our name down, but it still took a good 30 minutes before we were seated. As we waited, I couldn’t help but notice the wall full of awards, all the way from back in the early 90s. To come to think of it, even the front door was smothered in stickers indicating their various wins at restaurant contests. We had a party of 5, so at least we got our own table, mind you a small table for 4 and an extra chair crammed on the side. It seems that if you are a smaller party, you would most likely be asked to share a table with another group. As we waited, Rich contented himself with taking photos while I watched in awe as the massive lineup continued to grow at the door… almost Stephos-esque… (see below) By this time, I was getting really hungry and hoped that Phnom Penh was going to live up to its name!
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Once seated, we were given an extensive menu, one that definitely looks like it can use some updating. The edges were falling apart, all the prices were handwritten and there were plenty of handwritten changes to the menu as well. Rich’s family left it up to me to order as I had suggested it in the first place. I knew about the absolute must-try chicken wings and butter beef, but also perused the menu for other interesting things.
IMG_7299 copy Soon after we ordered, we were served customary tea and a small plate of bean sprouts with hot sauce on the side. I’m not a big fan of bean sprouts, so I passed on these. Besides, I was saving room for all the other yumminess to come! Rich’s mom commented that she liked it.
The first dish we received was the Phnom Penh Stew Beef Rice Noodle ($6.95) that was labeled as “spicy” on the menu. This was not the usual Vietnamese pho that I’m used to, but rather almost Chinese-like. In fact, it reminded me a lot of the beef stew noodle that my parents make at home. It consists of a thick tomato-ish broth that is mildly spicy (at least to me) with plenty of tender beef brisket and tendon pieces as well as carrots, finished by cilantro as garnish on top. Now cilantro is one of the few things that I really don’t like, so I tried to avoid it as much as possible. One complaint about it is… well, as you can see from the photo, it was quite oily. However, this bowl of rice noodles was good value, and I would probably get it for a lunch visit if I’m ever in the neighbourhood. IMG_7326 copy
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IMG_7316 copy2 Next to arrive was the Phnom Penh Special Jumbo Rice (B), which came with a generous serving of lemongrass pork chops, a fried egg, a few slices of Vietnamese ham, some fried noodle? (not sure what it was, but it tasted pretty bland) on a bed of steamed rice and salad. This was a very large portion priced very reasonably at only $10.50. I think the highlight of this dish was the pork chops, which were delicious! Everything else was just mediocre though. This dish (and likely all other rice dishes) came with a bowl of pork bone soup, which unfortunately tasted more like MSG than anything else. I only had a small sip and it was enough…
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In quick succession, we then received the famed marinated butter beef ($12.85), a plate of thinly sliced rare marinated beef in a mildly spicy soy vinaigrette garnished VERY generously with cilantro and peanuts. In presentation, it looks quite like beef carpaccio or beef tataki. Even though it’s all covered in cilantro (yuck!), I still wanted to give it a try – though after scraping most of the cilantro off. I’ve heard people say that there would be big butter globs all over the dish, but it did not seem to be the case today. Maybe it’s all soaked into the meat? I’d rather not know. One thing to note, I noticed that almost EVERY table in the entire restaurant had at least one order of this dish on their table. Is it hype? Or is it really that good? I would have to say that I liked the dish, but didn’t want to have too much of it as it is very oily. The beef was tender and had a “melt-in-your-mouth” type of texture.
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At the same time, we were also served beef luc lac with egg on rice, which was also served with a bowl of MSG pork bone soup. I asked for fried rice to be substituted for the regular steamed rice, which I believe is an extra charge ($3.00). The egg is served sunny side up and is meant to be stirred into the beef. Again, portion size was more than generous, with many pieces of well-seasoned (teriyaki/satay-esque), tender beef on a bed of fried rice. I really liked the beef in this dish – slightly sweet, slightly savoury, but not too overpowering with flavours. The fried rice seemed very Chinese-like, with stirred egg, chopped vegetables and pieces of Chinese sausage. Rich commented that he can make better fried rice… I better take him up on that! :) It was the more welcomed of the two rice dishes I ordered.
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I had heard that Phnom Penh also serves a squid dish that is very similar to their famous chicken wings, so I decided to get a half order of that so Richard can at least have a flavour of what the chicken would taste like. At $7.95, the half order is more than enough for five people. The squid pieces were large, light battered and deep fried. The batter was flavourful, but the vinaigrette dipping sauce really gave a kick to the dish. The dipping sauce was basically a mixture of white vinegar and white/black pepper – a simple, yet delicious mixture that really complemented the fried squid. IMG_7329 copy
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At this point, we were basically all full, but the famous chicken wings had not arrived. There was not way I was going to try Phnom Penh without having their chicken wings! So I flagged down a waiter and asked about it. Soon enough, a large plate of chicken wings was brought to us. In fact, it was so big (you can’t really appreciate the size of the dish in the photo above unfortunately) that I almost thought they had given us a full order instead of the half order that I wanted… until I took a look around and saw that the full order was even bigger! To be honest, I had such high hopes for this dish as it has commonly been raved as THE best chicken wings in Vancouver. It was done much the same fashion as the squid with the same vinegar/pepper dipping sauce. Now, the chicken wings were good, but not really GREAT. :( I think I still prefer the chicken wings at Aberdeen food court.

Overall, I felt that my experience at Phnom Penh was good. Perhaps I had such high expectations of it coming in that I am probably a bit biased in my review. After all, a restaurant that has been at the top of the Urbanspoon list for so long should have something that REALLY distinguishes it from the rest of the competition in the Vancouver food scene. There is nothing I really dislike about the restaurant…except the ridiculously long waits and the seemingly over-generous use of MSG in their dishes. I think we had our teapot refilled 6 or 7 times because we were all gulping down tea. I must say that it was good value for the amount and quality of food we received. The total bill came to just a tad over $60 before taxes and tips for the five of us. I doubt that I will visit again any time soon unless I happen to be close by.

The Yummies:
  • Excellent value
  • Well-executed signature dishes (e.g. chicken wings, butter beef)
  • Extensive menu with plenty of options for everyone
The Yuckies:
  • Lack of reliable parking (not exactly the best neighbourhood)
  • LONG, LONG, LONG wait times (and they don’t take reservations!)
  • Overtly generous use of MSG in their food
  • Minimal service (mind you, they are very busy and did fill our tea frequently

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Phnom Penh 金邊小館 on Urbanspoon


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