Driving down Monivong Boulevard recently, a newly arrived colleague remarked, “We must be in Chinatown”, and for all intents and purposes he was right.
From Mao Tse Tung Boulevard to Canadia Tower, you can scarcely swing a tail-less Khmer cat without hitting a Chinese restaurant and that’s not even including the ones concentrated around Central Market.
Xiao Xiao Seafood Restaurant does not stand out; in fact it’s overshadowed by its relatively better known counterpart next door, Tai Tai. You are not there for the décor, however. In fact, skip the stale (non-aircon) interior and enjoy a table outside with a comfortable view of Phnom Penh’s most bustling thoroughfare at 8pm.
Street sellers of all ages will present you with the opportunity to purchase holographic images of kittens and babies among other similarly appropriate items. Still, it’s less intrusive than the Riverside and you will notice fellow diners are surprisingly apt to make an impulse buy.
The usually busy crowd is an eclectic mix of mainly Chinese and Cambodians; a steady flow of Angkor bottles (US$2 for a large) keeps things lively. The maître’d (or Madame as it were on some occasions) is quick to offer suggestions – on the most recent visit she makes a hard sell for the goat cooked on an iron skillet.
Served on the bone it is tender with an almost osso buco-like quality and, as eloquently described by a dining companion, a “hint of mutton stink”. The onion-heavy sauce it sizzles in packs a peppery bite and becomes a garnish for anything we can get our hands on. Next, meaty ribs are served either fried with garlic or steamed with black bean sauce.
Opt for the latter, which come individually wrapped in the foil they are steamed in, sealing in the juices, they are porky and sweet, a generous medium serving is $6.50.
You will be at an advantage with a decent Chinese or Khmer speaker at your table, but the menu has reasonable enough descriptions in English and a picture supplement so the language barrier shouldn’t hold you back. Service is helpful within limitations and surprisingly flexible: a soup mistakenly ordered due to pointing with wide barang fingers was quickly taken back without argument when my visiting mother took offence to the whole black chicken swimming in it.
Stick with the picture book when choosing fish: opt for one or both of the crispy fried options, the whole grouper fried in a “not sweet sauce”, and an undisclosed ocean fish, butterflied and served in a “sweet sauce”. Both sauces are on the thick side and intensely red: The sweet is as described with a nice tang; the non-sweet is a slightly less sugary without crossing the line into truly savory territory. They are both highly addictive.
The fish is perfectly cooked and fleshy with pockets of fat that explode like fishy pork cracklings. The meat falls easily off the bones and we are left picking the skeleton apart in a last ditch effort to find edible sauce-soaked bits. At roughly $7 a fish you could do a lot worse.
Not everything is worth a second try: corn crab meat soup ($4.50 for a small portion) is cloying and bland, with plenty of egg and a few stray bits of tasteless corn and crab. Fried noodles with seafood are decent on one visit, on the next they fall totally flat – play it safe and get the fried rice instead (both $1.50 for a small portion). Light and fluffy, it does a much better job of soaking up sauce from iron skillets.
Fried kangkong (morning glory) with bean curd is a fairly standard Chinese vegetable, but it is served too buttery to feel healthy, and on one occasion the fermented bean curd adds a cheesy aftertaste, while another time it is left out completely. Still, at $2 it is worth having a bit of green on the table.
Xiao Xiao is not elegant – it has MSG and grease – but it doesn’t leave you feeling too bogged down. It’s a perfect spot for a Thursday night when you’ve already had a couple and you need a satisfying meal before heading home, but watch out, the hologram and karaoke sellers will come after you if they see you hitting the baijiu too hard.
Xiao Xiao Seafood Restaurant, 284 Monivong Blvd (corner of St 208), dinner for four with beer ($40)