Once inside the Asian chic interior of Small House, you’ll wonder how you failed to find it the first time. Directly down the road from the reliably good seafood restaurant corner of street 55, the narrow little restaurant glows from the street, illuminating a somewhat young-looking dining crowd seated around raw-wood tables. Outside, a standalone charcoal grill sends pleasing barbecued smells wafting onto the street – a hint of things to come.
A relative newcomer – it opened in mid September – Small House boasts an affordable, seafood-strong Khmer menu with a spicy Thai influence. The subdued decor of bamboo, bare walls and artsy wallpaper is closer to a hip Saigon hole-in-the-wall cafe than a typical Phnom Penh dinner joint.
On a midweek night Small House draws a strong crowd and by nine o’clock the place is almost full. The waiter encourages us to order the caramelised deep-fried fish: the hit of the menu, judging from the tables around us. Instead, our table of three starts off with a plate of sticky pork ribs, a Thai beef salad and some vegetables, to balance out our sweet and sour-heavy order.
Nicely charred and glistening in a thick tangy glaze, the stack of short ribs piled on curly lettuce is a tasty, sticky-fingered affair – and not too tough. With snake beans, shaved red cabbage, ribbons of carrot and plenty of bright red chilli, the beef salad is a riot of juicy colour – and for the unwary eater, pretty darn hot. The delicate strips of marinated beef are really good – cooked rare and generously proportioned amongst the rest of the peppery mix.
Service is good-natured but sporadic at peak hour. Thankfully, we had bottles of very icy Anchor to cool us down until the crisp veggies arrived – at which point we decided it was crazy not to order the sizzling fish everyone else was so eagerly tucking into.
Deep fried and smothered in a thick fruity sauce, the fish is delivered whole and steaming to the table. Underneath the sweet and tamarindy sauce, dotted with pineapple and shredded carrot, is a mouth watering, crispy-skinned fish. The white flesh is tender and delicately sweet – a delicious contrast. In a few minutes we’ve turned it over and are scraping up the remainder of the fillet with what’s left of the sauce.
Our second order of rice arrives just as we’re searching for the toothpicks, but we’re too sated to care. The bill comes in at $15 – a bargain price for excellent fare in a quirky hideout, hopefully a taste of things to come in Phnom Penh.
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