To many Westerners - save the French - snails are considered inedible, but Soy Virak, the owner of Bei Chomneanh restaurant in Chamkarmon district, sees them as the staple of a successful business concept.
When Virak, 37, who previously worked as a travelling salesman, started his family restaurant in a small rental house in April last year, he was gambling his small savings on nothing more than some personal barbeque sauce recipes and gastropod gastronomy.
“Opening this business was a great risk,” Virak says. “Not only did I have to compete with the thousands of restaurants in Phnom Penh but I also opened my restaurant in a location known as the restaurant precinct. But, I told myself that there was no real success without any risk.”
With his wife Chot Sreymom helping out as an accountant, Virak acts as both the manager and the chef. Despite having only a little culinary experience and no formal training, he learned by experimenting with different meats and ingredients. Ultimately, he found his niche with cooking snails.
“Snails have been part of the Cambodian diet since ancient times in both the city and countryside, but most people only boil or roast them without adding any flavor and eat them with fish or Koh Kong sauce [made from garlic, lime, fish sauce, red peppers and sugar],” Virak says.
“There are only a few places which serve snail dishes, and I believe we would take the lead if we could create unique flavours with snails,” he adds.
Almost every evening, Bei Chomneanh is crowded with customers, most of whom are students and working people. According to Virak, the Grilled Snail ($1.25) is the most popular dish and consists of five fist-sized lake snails with Virak’s barbecue sauce and deep-fried thinly sliced shallots, all grilled on a charcoal stove. After eating the flesh of a grilled snail with a tiny fork, the best part is to slurp up the savoury juices from the shell.
Virak says to ensure freshness the snails are kept in clean water for a day to rid them of dirt and are directly grilled for 15 minutes. While waiting for the signature lake snails, the Stir-Fried pond Snails ($2) cooked with coconut cream, curry powder, and hot peppers are a good warm up.
The flesh is tender and flavourful, and the scented and spicy juices from the dish go nicely with steamed rice ($0.25). Departing from the mollusk mains, the Barbecued Frogs ($3) and Pork Ribs ($2) are popular among the Westerner regulars.
Virak’s originality also extends to the décor, which beyond the fish tanks and a few paintings includes handicrafts by Virak and his employees, such as a head-high wooden clock, a mini bamboo chariot and clay statuettes.
“For both food and decoration, originality and uniqueness is important,” says Virak. “But sometimes simplicity is the best.”
Bei Chomneanh Restaurant is located at #7 Street 402 and is open from 4pm-11pm every day. Tel: 089778877 or 086676888.