While Golden Street backpacker hostel Top Banana is known for a lot of things, food have never been one of them. But that’s set to change if vagabond chef Mira Allen, 34, has her way. For the past month, Allen, whose travels have found her in kitchens in Boston, Hanoi and Sihanoukville, has been developing a newly upgraded menu that she hopes will not only please the tourists but also attract more permanent Phnom Penh residents to eat at the iconic guesthouse.
What was your aim when you started developing the new menu?
We wanted to elevate the experience for the guests that come through. So we’re really focusing on scratch cooking – making a lot of things from scratch, like our sauces and our salsa – and improving the quality of our ingredients. For example, we’re using 100 per cent black Angus beef on all of our burgers now. A lot of our meats are coming from Digby’s, which has really high quality stuff.
Is there a general theme to the menu?
When I was putting it together, I was thinking of when I was a backpacker. I would be looking for filling food, but also something fresh. So we have several new salads on the menu along with a few different burgers paired with a variety of sauces. We have a firey burger that has a spicy sauce and roasted peppers, and a blue cheese burger which we’ve paired with some sauteed mushrooms and onions.
Are there any local dishes or ingredients that have excited or inspired you?
I’m really a big fan of the green peppercorns – the pepper from Kampot, obviously you can’t really find pepper like that elsewhere in the world. So I’m looking into using a lot of that, especially on the specials. The Mekong River fish is also really nice. It’s got a nice solid texture to it, and not so much of a fishy flavour, so it appeals to a wider range of people. We’re putting it on some of the burgers, and we do a Cajun blackened fish as well.
What’s been the biggest challenge putting the new menu together?
Sourcing has been a really big learning curve for me, just getting to know where to find different things in the city. It was really great to get to the local markets to see what was available – the different ingredients and fruits, especially.
Are there any dishes that diverge from the backpacker staples?
We definitely have all of those things on the menu plus a few other things. I adore Mexican food. So we have a quesadilla that has cheddar, chicken, spinach and mushroom, which is by no means authentically Mexican. We also make a fire-roasted salsa. And we have tacos with pulled pork, battered fish, cilantro slaw and chicken.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to Alaska to work on a small cruise ship for the summer. I usually work over in the States for the summer and generally find my way back here in the winter.
Interview edited for length and clarity.