I can’t stop thinking about Phnom Penh. Many travelers to Cambodia use the capital city as a brief stop-off point – a place to shed their jet lag and acclimate to the country’s searing temperatures – before heading off to the temples of Siem Reap or the beaches of Kep, but I found Phnom Penh to be a worthy travel destination, especially for the local food.
Cambodian cuisine remains a mystery to most of the Western world. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I agreed to shoot the web series in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Travel shows I watched focused on temples and food shows, on fried tarantulas. Logically, most culinary travelers to Southeast Asia make a beeline for Vietnam, but Cambodia was calling my name. In retrospect, I’m so glad I went; the people, plates and stories I experienced in Cambodia were nothing less than extraordinary.
My advice for travelers to Phnom Penh, even if you’re just there for 24 hours, is to get out and experience the local cuisine, from beer gardens to an authentic barbecue breakfast. TIP: The water in Phnom Penh is DRINKABLE, so no worries about ice in your coffee or eating raw fruits and veggies. Go ahead, salad it up! Here are my favorite foodie spots in Phnom Penh:
The Ebony Tree
#29 Street 29
Unmissable home-cooked Cambodian cuisine from rising-star chef and fashionista Rina Roat. The Ebony Tree takes Cambodia’s culinary scene to the next level in a breezy, backyard secret-garden setting. The restaurant is named after the tree Rina called “home” for much of her orphaned childhood. With no formal culinary training, Chef Roat’s signature dishes go beyond typical Phnom Penh restaurant fare, evoking fresh flavors found only in local homes. Rina herself is inspiring; irrefutably talented with a story of survival against all odds, she fights for the city’s disadvantaged women, giving them a second chance in her kitchen. Keep an eye on The Ebony Tree’s Facebook page for special barbecue dinners, beginning at $5 per person. Must try dish: the restaurant’s special Kampot pepper sauce.
#74 Street 174
Creative Cambodian cuisine – local dishes served with an upscale twist – in a lush, picturesque setting. Created by the Tree Alliance and Friends International organizations, Romdeng is a restaurant and hospitality training facility for former street children and at-risk youth in Phnom Penh. Stop by the gift shop on the first floor to pick up a copy of the restaurant’s award-winning cookbook. Try the fried tarantula, if you dare.
Karma Restaurant & Bar
273c Sisowath Quay (Riverside)
Located along the riverside this tourist-friendly restaurant specializes in signature Cambodian dishes and Western food. Good for people watching and happy hour prices.
54 Langeach Sros
15A Street 178
Typical Cambodian-style beer garden barbecue, with a vibrant local clientele. This two-story restaurant serves up some far-out Khmer specialty dishes like fermented fish paste, black tree ants and fried fish “on the fire lake.” Don’t miss the barbecued beef and juicy pork ribs.
Traditional pork and rice breakfast (bai sach chrouk) vendor
Where I ate: Street 178 between Norodom Blvd and Street 25. Served from 6:00AM to 8:00AM.
A Cambodian breakfast of pork and rice is one local dish worth trying. Pull up a chair to the checkered table (there are many vendors in Phnom Penh, so look for a table with a lot of customers), hold up your hand and order “one” of what everyone else is having.