Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, has recently seen a boom in it’s food scene. Obviously the street food and local food has always been here, but even on that front new chefs are pushing boundaries in their traditional food and coming up with some pretty exciting outcomes. That and the swathe of new international restaurants popping up like choice weeds all over the town, mean that for an ex-pat who lives here: things are getting better.
Sure, in the past you had the semi-alcoholic Italian ex-pat churning out passable pizza’s and overcooked pasta to throngs of stoned backpackers who wouldn’t know a good meal if it bit them on the ankle, but now those lingerers are being forced to up their game with a new generation taking things seriously. From authentic Mexican, Italian, Japanese to all manner of new-school Khmer food, Phnom Penh is pushing its neck out from the water to be taken seriously as a culinary destination in it’s own right.
Places to eat
Most of the reviews of this place start with "I don't normally recommend tourist spots... BUT". But, is the right word. This beautiful restaurant situated in an old house and garden, serves up superb (finally) Cambodian dishes for a reasonable price considering the service and attention to detail. The Muslim Beef Curry was rich and delicious, probably best for sharing since it's a lot of intense flavour for one person to contain.
A beautiful restaurant set in a garden with koi ponds and a watchful Buddha, serves authentic local food with enough tweaks to honour the stiff prices. My food was good, the service was a bit clumsy, but I guess if you order the right things and their front-of-house machinery is in order you would have a memorable meal here.
Without a doubt the most expensive meal i've had in maybe 5 years, but it was worth it. This superb little restaurant boasts some lip-smacking steaks with kampot peppersauce (which was divine), excellent service and a bill to match. Come here if its a special occasion and you want to partake in ritualistic bovine surrender.
For 15 Dollars you can do the set-menu which includes a soup, meze, main, dessert and a mint tea to end proceedings. I opted for the Beef Tagine and it was delicious! Tender, flavoursome pieces of beef in a perfectly spiced sauce. Throw caution to the wind and pop by here if you're in town.
Eleven One Kitchen ($$)
I generally find Cambodian food to be a bit muted in flavour, hence you will find a lot of "non-Cambodian" restaurants in this guide. I tried many different places but all of them came up blank, except one. Decent food, well prepared, nice presentation, but severely lacking in any memorable punch. Eleven One was the same. Their fish amok was tender, juicy, but the coconut curry had zero flavour or spices. It was almost like they opened a can of coconut milk, threw in some tumeric for colour and plopped a bit of fish in there.
I add these to the list of recommendations tho, because of the places I tried they were still the best of the rest, so if you like Cambodian cuisine i'm sure you'll be thrilled.
You can search high and low in Asia for decent Mexican food, and come up short each time. Mexicano in Phnom Penh manages the almost impossible: Authentic Mexican food in Asia. Their taco's are phenomenal, their salsas, sides, service, literally everything, works.
Irina's Restaurant ($$)
Decorated like a gingerbread house on acid, this neighborhood Russian spot is the perfect place for a hearty bowl of borsht. It literally is better than some I had in the motherland.
Backyard Cafe ($$)
If you happen to be one of those people obsessed with your fecal matter or skin tone, then this cafe has all the acai berries and activated nuts that your asshole can handle.
Jokes aside, the food here is good and leaves you feeling like you can summit Everest without oxygen or shoes. I'll report on the state of my deposits tomorrow morning...
Rarely have I had such good Indian food outside of India. Perfectly pillowy naan and a damn near perfect spicy chicken curry (I asked for it hot and they didn't shy away).
Jiang Su Ren Jia ($)
Having just landed from Hong Kong, I was hesitant to dive back into the world of Chinese food, but i'm glad I did. Sensational dumplings, crispy green onion pancakes and a hundred other things on the menu to tempt you to return again and again.
Idli Dosa ($)
There are not many places on earth you can get a phenomenal dosa and a cup of tea for $2. Owned and run by a friendly Tamilian, this achingly small spot near "tourist purgatory" is a delicious relief from an overload of Khmer food.
Stationed near the Russian Market, this smart-casual restaurant serves authentic Brunei-Malaysian fare. Their sambal is excellent and truly packs a punch!
Now upgraded to two branches in town, this Ramen house serves up the best ramen I tried in my attempts in PP. The egg is a disappointment, the pork isn't magnificent, but the broth and the noodles more than put a lid on your ramen cravings.
Taste Budz ($)
Yes! Another Indian restaurant. Phnom Penh is packed full of exceptional Indian restaurants, and this Southern Indian place doesn't disappoint. Tamil owned, tamil chef, tamil waiters. Bingo!
Don't be fooled by the awful interiors, it's whats inside (the kitchen) that counts.
Friends the Restaurant ($$)
Known for their tarantula burger, with my stomach still a touch fragile I opted for a laksa. The outdoor seating area here is appeasing, the service is great and the menu is full of delicious items to tempt even the most ardent snob.
Hummus House ($$)
Yearning for some hummus? Pita? Tabbouleh? Shawarma roll? This is your spot in Phnom Penh! Pop next door to the Sundance afterwards for the coldest beer in town and Bo Diddley on the stereo.
Yosaya Thai ($$)
Can't live without Thai food for more than a few days? Two branches of Yosaya will curb the shakes and put you on the right path again. Expect street-food style offerings from this basic restaurant, but authentic flavours abound!
Cafes, Bars & Oddities
This upstairs rock bar is the perfect place to revisit some classic rock, play a round of pool, and generally escape the seedy girl bars and sketchy looking sex-tourists.
Java Cafe Independence Monument
My favourite balcony in Phnom Penh. I can think of no better place to sit and sip a lime soda or americano, and watch the world go by. A relaxing, calming oasis in the middle of the insanity.
Best Ice Coffee (Shop 547)
Don't get confused with the stall next door that claims to have the Best Coffee In Cambodia, this spot with all the thank-you notes hanging from the roof is the real deal. Mr. Bounnarith has been churning out coffee's for over 30 years from this small stall in the Russian Market. Pull up a stool, have a coffee and a chat with this delightful man.
There are better coffee's in town, but you come here for the experience too.
Craft Beer anyone? Right-o. Despite my regular hatred for craft beer bars, this tiny spot located away from the main strip in the maze-like alleyways of BKK 1 is a friendly place to chinwag with the Finnish co-owner and sip local beers. They even have Lagavulin and Caol Ila so it can't be terrible, can it?
Behind the "vintage" Coca Cola machine is the entrance to this speakeasy which hosts live music most days, and can get uncomfortably crowded. I say that, but for me personally: 2 is a crowd.
Down Bassac Lane, the main artery of PP's nightlife, this small bar is worth trading cash for liquid pleasure in. Most of the bars in this block are all pretty similar, so just find what suits you. My vote goes for this spot, and if you like cocktails i'm sure you'd agree.
If you're plodding around near Bassac Lane and fancy a quiet pint in the calm surroundings of an alleyway leading to a garden, then this is your spot. The music isn't loud, there's plenty of space to hide from talkative ex-pat pensioners and they have a decent menu of beers and wine.
Score Sports Bar
Scoring here, means something a little different to other bars in the neighborhood. As a football addict, I have to track down a place to watch the game in any city i'm in. Luckily in Phnom Penh this behemoth of a bar has more screens than bricks, and attentive service.
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively