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Out to Lunch: The search for the city’s top taco

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Buried in the confines of a tortilla under accumulated layers of assorted items, the taco is no ordinary meal. It calls for the elements of life to be proffered up to the hungry in an elegant yet simple manner, and to be consumed in the most natural way – with our bare hands.

Gregory Pellechi/Phnom Penh Post

Taco lovers enjoying Viva’s mex cuisine.

The taco has begun to make its presence known in the Penh, with easily nine restaurants with their own versions. They range from the classic, a tortilla offering little more than some carne asada (grilled steak) with onions, cilantro and salsa with a squirt of lime juice, to a hard shell corn tortilla loaded with fried fish, guacamole, sour cream, cabbage and more.

Tacos in Phnom Penh have yet to experience the revolution that’s taken them from a quick, satisfying snack in the USA to a gourmand’s delight, with people tracking the best food trucks around the country and making it their goal to try them all.

Part of the brilliance of the taco is its versatility, but that fact alone puts a mote of fear into my mind when I’m presented with the opportunity to try a new batch. I’ve lived in Southern California and Portland, Oregon, (two foodie havens and not just for tacos), and even travelled Central America so I consider my palate well tuned. But as so often happens with a particular cuisine, when it’s exported it gets changed – not just because of the availability of ingredients but also to comply with cultural culinary tastes.

The taco is never supposed to be spicy or particularly hot. That is left to the consumers who determine what salsa they want to accompany it. That doesn’t meant that there is no seasoning; whatever the meat or fish, there is supposed to be a delicate layer of spices that it’s cooked in.

But as so often happens, those spices are tempered to reflect local sensibilities which for Phnom Penh means a more mild range of tacos and salsa. Before I made any judgement in that regard I had to try just about every taco the city has. What resulted was a trip through the many iterations of the simple taco.

I started at Viva on Sisowath Quay, and discovered that the latest contender in the Penh was serving $1 tacos alongside $1.50 margaritas. This fact alone immediately endeared me to Viva, as the tacos were simple but filling, a concept that can never go wrong when paired with food.

Before I went home I went to Garage, a bar on Street 110, where I was presented with a plate of two perfectly balanced tacos – a testimony to the owner’s attention to food. The proportions of fish, tortilla and accompanying garnishes including lettuce, tomatoes and onion made for the ideal plate though I left feeling still slightly peckish. No one ever screams “Taco!” just once – they scream it two or three times.

In an effort to speed along my journey, and to ensure that I would survive a weekend of nothing but tacos, I ordered delivery from Sharky on Street 130, Freebird on Street 278 and Alley Cat Cafe on Street 19 – all of which arrived serendipitously at the same time and in an absurd amount of Styrofoam.

Laid out in front of me, the tacos made for a smorgasbord of salsa-topped savouries, sadly not including anything from Cantina on Sisowath quay as they do not deliver.

Sharky’s tacos had some heft to them and were the truest to form when it comes to getting a SoCal (Southern California) fish taco in Phnom Penh. Though they came with hard shells they were supported by a spicy tartar sauce that held its own but never overwhelmed my palate or the taco shell. Sharky expressed a knowledge of the taco and the variations that are inherent in its flavour but like Garage only provided me with two.

Freebird had numbers on its side, as an order consists of three tacos, and they allowed me to select both hard and soft shells. The seasoning of the beef was noticeable but so was the lesser amounts of lettuce and other garnishes. I feel like they were trying for a taco but neglected the fact that as an individual item it can provide a balanced diet.

Like Viva, Alley Cat Cafe provides prospective customers with a selection of tacos that includes beef, chicken, chorizo, bean and normally fish as well as hard or soft shells. Each, regardless of the type of tortilla, comes sprinkled with lettuce and onion and a very mild but chunky salsa. Choice is nice, but it’s all that’s really available and something I would trade for more heavily spiced meat which felt lost amongst everything else.

While such delectable fusions such as Korean tacos, comprising of Korean BBQ laid on a flour tortilla and garnished with sprouts and a bit of lime juice are de rigueur for the big American cities, Phnom Penh has yet to conduct its own experiments, preferring instead to remain cognizant of the traditional taco.

Khmer cuisine is ideally placed to be engulfed by a tortilla. Just imagine how succulent a taco full of beef lok lak and accompanied by strips of fried egg, onions, tomatoes, sprouts and the traditional lime pepper sauce would be, especially after a night on the town. Should any chef decide to attempt my idea, at least be polite enough to name the dish after me.

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