For most visitors, eating out in Phnom Penh comes as a pleasant surprise for a city of its small size. The Cambodian capital boasts an abundance of excellent restaurants, from casual alfresco eateries to fancier fine diners.
While there are plenty of restaurants serving wonderful Cambodian cuisine, a bonus for those who have been travelling for a while is the plethora of ethnic eateries serving all kinds of cuisines, including French, Chinese, Italian, Indian, Mexican, and Japanese.
On our first trip to Phnom Penh four years ago, like most first-time visitors to Cambodia, we didn’t quite know what to expect from Cambodian cuisine. Would it be like Thai food? A little like Vietnamese? Or perhaps something like Laotian? What we quickly discovered is that Cambodian cuisine shares culinary techniques, ingredients and flavours with all of its neighbours, and yet it’s uniquely Cambodian at the same time.
Cambodian food can be rich and fragrant and also a little spicy, yet nowhere near as spicy and fiery as some of the regional Thai cuisines can be, like that of southern Thailand and the northeastern Isaan region. Some Cambodian dishes have the lightness, simplicity and fresh clean flavours of Vietnamese, while other dishes also have the depth and complexity of Thai curries.
When Cambodian food is hearty it lacks the refinement of similar Vietnamese dishes and is more like comfort food, especially when it comes to Cambodian curries. And when it’s sour, it can be even more tangy, bitter and pungent than Thai food, particularly the Khmer soups.
The French influence is also felt in some Cambodian favourites, like the baguettes used to scoop up curries, for instance, while other dishes are distinctly South East Asian, like the very tasty amok trey, a steamed fish curry made with fresh coconut milk. You can expect to read a lot more on Cambodian cuisine here. We’re hooked.
These are some of the restaurants where we enjoyed eating out in Phnom Penh.
Eating Out in Phnom Penh
Busy, buzzy and dishing up brilliant food, Romdeng is a real delight. If we hadn’t have been in Phnom Penh writing a story for a magazine and therefore required to eat widely, we could have easily returned here a few times to try more dishes on the menu. We were in Cambodia for two weeks, and this was some of the tastiest food we had during our stay. (Update: we have since eaten at Romdeng many times and it’s been consistently delicious.)
We loved the grilled pork fillet stuffed with toasted fresh coconut, a two-colour pomelo salad with fresh shrimp and toasted coconut, a Kampong Sam-style prawn curry served with French bread, and a Khmer Muslim beef and peanut Saraman curry that is similar in style to a Thai Mussaman curry. It was all delicious.
Set in a restored colonial mansion, Romdeng has tables in a vibrant downstairs space, decorated with colourful art on the walls, and another upstairs room, used during monsoon. We dined on the breezy veranda overlooking the leafy courtyard and lush garden.
A training centre staffed by kids rescued from the streets (so you know your money is going to a good cause), Romdeng is frequented by a microcosm of Phnom Penh society, its tables packed with NGO workers, business types, and travellers. It’s a fun restaurant. If you’re on a quick stopover and only have time for one place to eat, definitely make this it.
74, 174 Street, +855 (0) 9221 9565, www.tree-alliance.org
One of the first Cambodian fine dining restaurants in Phnom Penh, elegant Malis has long been one of the city’s best and its owner-chef Luu Meng considered one of Cambodia’s most outstanding chefs.
The prahok ktis – “most Cambodian famous dish”, made with fermented fish (prahok), minced pork, kroeung and coconut milk, and served with fresh vegetables or crudites – was delicious. Some home-made pork sausages, stuffed with pork, shredded coconut, and coriander, were tasty and juicy, and some of the best sausages we’ve ever eaten. The Cambodian chicken curry by contrast was a tad disappointing, under-cooked, and served on a flat board so the sauce dripped onto the table.
The day we dined the restaurant was empty and the waiting staff, obviously bored, watched us eat for most of our meal, then disappeared for the rest, so there wasn’t a soul around. It wasn’t the service you’d expect of a restaurant rated so highly. Was the manager off that day, we wondered? Having said that, we would return for the prahok ktis and sausages any day.
And we did – we’ve since eaten at the restaurant on a number of occasions. The food has been consistently good on other occasions, and it must be said that Malis has one of the longest menus of Cambodian dishes, with many not found elsewhere. The service can be hit and miss, just go for the food.
136 Norodom Boulevard, +855 (0) 2322 1022, www.malis-restaurant.com
*The Sugar Palm
This is a sister restaurant to Cambodian-New Zealander Kethana Dunnet’s popular Siem Reap restaurant, The Sugar Palm. The food – fantastic, quality Cambodian cuisine – is easily as good here, but we preferred the atmosphere of the Siem Reap place, which is enchanting at night.
Here, we enjoyed a refreshing pomelo salad with shrimp and pork, the ubiquitous tasty minced pork dip, prahok ktis, that you’ll find on most menus (which I first fell in love with here), and a Khmer chicken curry that was hearty, sweet and pungent.
The Phnom Penh restaurant is on 240 Street, adjoining a cute little boutique called Binky Higgins – and there’s an entrance to the boutique within the restaurant, so you can try on some clothes while you wait for your food. The location, slap bang in the middle of Phnom Penh’s chic shopping street, means it’s an ideal refuelling stop if you’re out boutique-hopping.
19, 240 Street, www.thesugarpalm.com
The Cambodian sister-restaurant to one of our favourite dining spots in Saigon, Nhà Hàng Ngon, Vietnamese restaurant, Ngon had just opened when we were in Phnom Penh and was packed with well-off Cambodians every day we passed by.
The place is beautiful – a frangipani-shaded courtyard with a terracotta tiled floor, surrounded by breezy open dining spaces with dark wooden screens, decorated with Vietnamese lanterns. Around the perimetre of the place are ‘hawker stalls’ and when you place your order, the waiter delivers it to one of the cooks at a stall.
In addition to the Vietnamese dishes, there were some Cambodian specialties, but aside from a sublime thick noodle soup with crab meat and pork, we didn’t find the food as impressive as the Saigon restaurant, and the service wasn’t as efficient. It had only been open for a short time, so it may have been teething problems. If you’ve eaten here, we’d love to know what you thought of it.
60 Sihanouk Boulevard, +855 (0) 987 151
Tepui is located upstairs at historic Chinese House, a grand mansion dating back to the early twentieth century, near the shipping yards at the far end of Sisowath Quay. (Get a tuk-tuk here.) Tepui had also just opened when we were in town in a space that had previously been a bar, and the bar was moved downstairs into the former art gallery.
The dining space is stunning, and I’d love to say go and experience the restaurant for the atmosphere alone, but who really does that? The food by Venezuelan chef Gisela Salazar Golding was a tad disappointing when we dined. The menu was reminiscent of 1980s fusion – too many flavours that couldn’t possibly work together – and of three dishes we ate none of them really impressed.
The colossal, high-ceilinged room with hanging Oriental lanterns and Chinese ‘antiques’, including a beautiful bed, is a delight to dine in, however, so perhaps ask locals how the food is when you’re in town. The cocktails were also brilliant, but we’ll tell you about those in another post.
45 Sisowath Quay +855 (0) 2399 1514, Note: this restaurant is no longer, instead it’s jus Called China House and has a different concept.
One of the hippest spots in town, Yumi is a cool little Japanese izakaya on 288 Street, owned by young English chef Caspar von Hofmannsthal. There are wooden tables in a leafy courtyard at the front of the restaurant and diner-style booths inside the contemporary interior running alongside the bar, with views of the busy open kitchen. Tables are full most nights, so book ahead if you can.
Like Romdeng, the place has a buzz about it and a real mix of customers – mostly hip and young – which always makes things fun. Caspar takes things pretty seriously too, changing dishes according to what he finds fresh at the market each morning, so the menu is tweaked every day.
On the night we dined there were traditional izakaya stalwarts like tempura, sushi and yakitori, with contemporary twists, such as gyoza filled with pumpkin instead of pork, and ribs that tasted almost Texan. 29A, 288 Street, +855 (0) 9216 3903
The entrance to this fun Spanish tapas bar can be a little tricky to find. The restaurant is on the first floor of a big yellow colonial mansion opposite Sisowath Quay – look up and you might see diners on the balcony – but the entrance is around the corner. The place was busy with a predominantly expat crowd the night we ate here, and it’s authentic Spanish tapas and traditional dishes like paella that is bringing them here.
We loved the chorizo a la sidra, calamares fritos, and the albondigas – all as authentic and as tasty as any you’d find in Spain. While the kitchen staff looked Cambodian, the manager is half Uruguayan and lived in Barcelona for 12 years, so that has something to do with the authenticity.
The décor is stylish – wooden floorboards, a bar at the centre of the space, big mirrors, and banquette seating that runs along one wall, above which hangs a colossal painting. Add to that, Spanish/Latin music on the stereo, reasonable prices, and a sangria special that locals seemed to love.
389 Sisowath Quay, +855 (0) 224 394
Wikipedia has a handy Cambodian cuisine glossary.
*UPDATE, 2014: Since the time of writing, Yumi and Pacharan have closed. We’ll be posting a new Phnom Penh restaurant guide soon.
Have you eaten at any of these restaurants? What were your impressions? Do you have any favourite Phnom Penh restos you’d like to share? We’d love to hear your thoughts.