Eat out and cook your own food at the same time. Impossible? Not in Phnom Penh.
Let’s be honest. How many of us actually cook at home on a regular basis? In a city like Phnom Penh where cheap eats and lively restaurants are abundant, the urge to eat out is sometimes all consuming. But for those of us who crave the act of cooking for ourselves, Phnom Penh offers plenty of do-it-yourself restaurants where you can eat out and cook your own food at the same time.
The most popular do-it-yourself restaurants are Khmer barbecue joints, which can be found in almost every neighborhood in town. The premise is simple—you’re given a gas fueled grill, a platter of fresh vegetables, side bowls of prahoc (Cambodia’s ever popular fermented fish sauce) for dipping, and a plate of raw beef, with or without organ meat. Then, you’re on your own to grill up the offerings as to your preference. But like anything, standards of service and quality of food vary considerably from place to place.
One of the better Khmer barbecue restaurants in Phnom Penh is The Four Aces (or At Booun in Khmer) located on the corner of St. 86 and St. 64. The set up is simple – iron tables, plastic chairs and the ubiquitous bar girls roaming the indoor and outdoor tables. But don’t let the tissue littered floor fool you, the service and food here go above and beyond.
Upon being seated, a waitress will immediately ask you what you would like. There’s no menu here, so you have two options – Sait Koh Ang (grilled beef) or Soup Chnang (soup with meat and vegetables). Most of the servers speak English, but it wouldn’t hurt to know the Khmer names of the dishes or to bring along a Khmer speaking friend.
Now comes the fun part – if you’ve ordered grilled beef, you simply melt the supplied butter or lard over the grill, and lay on the meat and vegetables, cooking them to your preference. Pretty soon, the air will be fragrant with grilled onions, carrots, and sizzling beef. A quick dip in the complimentary bowl of prahoc, and you’ve got a truly Khmer meal.
For those in the mood for soup, a pot of beef broth with meatballs is placed on your grill, and you can pick and choose which vegetables and noodles to add from the platter supplied. Choices range from mushrooms, Khmer herbs, onions, fried garlic, spinach, and green water vegetables. You will also be given a plate of beef and one egg, which you crack onto the beef, mix around, and then slide into the soup. In ten minutes or less, you’ve got a hearty and healthy dinner.
Another great venue for soup lovers is the junction of Norodom, Monivong, and National Rd. No. 2 in the south of the city. Here one can find a plethora of soup restaurants lined up side by side, each imaginatively named after their street numbers (333, 555, 642, etc.).
Each restaurant serves exactly the same dishes, namely, huge portions of fresh veggies, meat, noodles, and dried tripe for the discerning eater to mix and match as they please. And servers are always readily on hand to top up your broth or refill your ice-cold soft drinks, Anchor draft, or Cambodian whiskey.
And what is a barbecue without freshly cooked meat? For the truly carnivorous at heart, look no further than Beong Trabek on St. 428. Finding it should be no problem – just look for a sea of motorbikes out front, and you’ll know you’re at the right place. Set in a warehouse sized beer garden setting, this place caters to large families, and groups of 10-100, as well as tables for two and even solitary diners.
Beong Trabek really does grill it all, from juicy strips of beef or pork, to fresh squid, monstrous prawns, succulent oysters, and even delicious crabs straight from the beach. Each dish is grilled on clay pot barbecues set up strategically around the room. While the standard procedure is to let the servers cook your food for you, they have no problems relinquishing the task to you if you so desire.
While you watch your feast being grilled to perfection, you will be set up with a plate of freshly roasted peanuts, vegetables, chili sauce, and a small dish of pepper with accompanying lime wedges. Squeeze the lime into the pepper, and you’ve got another tasty Cambodian dipping sauce for your meat and seafood.
If you really want to enjoy your barbecue in true Khmer style, order a pitcher of draft beer and a can of ABC stout, poured directly into the pitcher with the beer. Served over ice, it’s the perfect accompaniment to grilled meat – just don’t blame me if you wake up feeling a tad (or incredibly) groggy in the morning.
Four Aces (At Booun)
Corner of St. 86 and 64
#333, # 555, #642 Monivong Boulevard
# 10 St. 428