From Vietnamese pho stalls to Chinese hand-pulled noodle restaurants, it seems ironic that Phnom Penh expats tend to laud foreign-inspired noodle eateries more than their Cambodian counterparts. Perhaps it’s due to the latter’s sheer ubiquity: in Phnom Penh, food carts on every corner sell the same store-bought instant noodles served with smatterings of vegetables and congealed blood. They’re Cambodia’s answer to New York hotdog stands. But even hotdogs can turn out to be gems, and although the good noodle stalls are often crowded out by the mediocre, they can be found with a little sleuthing.
Such is the case of an unnamed noodle place down an alley just north of the corner of streets 111 and 198 near the Capital Guesthouse. Hidden from the street and without signage, its only distinguishing feature at first glance is that it looks especially dingy in the shade of the surrounding shop houses. But this unassuming stall is a favourite of culinary stars including the staff at one of the capital’s most luxurious eateries, Topaz.
Lina Hak, general manager, said: “I grew up around there. My father always took me there with him, it became my ‘benchmark’ as far as noodle soup concerned. When I introduced the place to my boss, he loved it immediately.”
At 8:30am last Monday, no less than 50 customers were slurping away in the cramped alley. To accommodate their local fame, the owners converted an adjacent building to a dining room that allows customers to eat their food inside.
Kuy teav, which is similar to pho, is the restaurant’s signature dish. Prepared with thin rice noodles and pork broth, it is served with slices of spongy beef paddies and small bits of squid and prawn. The broth had a smooth aroma and a clean herbal taste that complimented the abundance of meat and seafood that is added shortly before being served.
The exact recipe is a secret closely guarded by head chef Ear Heng, 31, but he said that it contains several herbs that make his brand of kuy teav particularly popular.
“Before, we had noodles, but not good noodles,” said Heng, who was brought on by the family business four years ago to redo the menu.
“I changed a lot of things, because before they used beef that gave people stomach problems.”
All looked clean on the food cart last week, and the food went down without any drama. This noodle eatery without a name may not turn heads, but it is a prime example of what street cooks can do with a little ingenuity.
Near the Capital Guesthouse. Open daily from 5:15am to 10:30am.