Last week, the unmistakable aroma of grilled meat wafted down Tuol Tompoung’s Street 450. It wasn’t coming from a street vendor, but Cambodia’s first Armenian-style barbecue, Arkun.
The restaurant, which is set to open next week, is a joint project between Gevorg Babayan and his uncle Ara. They are hoping that their hearty kebabs draw a crowd larger than those simply longing for a taste of home; the nephew jokes that the pair likely makes up half of the Armenian population in Phnom Penh.
Feasting is central to Armenian culture, Gevorg says. Any chance for a good meal and a couple of drinks is taken, and mastering the perfect barbecue goes hand-in-hand with male pride. “If you had barbecue every day in Armenia, you would be a king,” he says.
Setting up the restaurant was easy enough. The open-pit grill sits outside on the street. The interior is sparse: a simple, Khmer-style shophouse with neatly arranged wooden tables and photographs of the Babayan’s homeland on the wall.
The modest Ara tends to the grill with a smile, throwing out the occasional sly joke. But his nephew boasts of his credentials: “One day, a group of friends gathered to cook a barbecue and he became the champion,” Gevorg recounts.
Ara served up a hearty meal with a home-cooked feel. Post Weekend sampled the beef kebab, which Gevorg is quick to differentiate from its Turkish doner counterpart. The ground beef is mixed with onions and herbs, briefly fried to maintain the shape, frozen and then wrapped on a skewer and cooked over the open fire. The kebabs are also available with pork or chicken.
At Arkun, the hearty portions are just $5, so it’s easy to imagine those in Phnom Penh eating like a king on the regular. Gevorg says they’ve been lucky to find suppliers to provide meat – including Australian beef – that is up to Armenian standards. (“Well, almost,” he adds with a laugh.) He also boasts of the Armenian-style flatbread (lavash) that they’ve developed in house.
And vegetarians need not shy away from the meat-centric surrounds. Ara serves a nice, smoky plate of roasted aubergine, peppers and tomato or a summer salad, though he might try to convince customers that “just a little bit of meat” won’t hurt anyone.
Arkun is located at #53 Street 450. It will be open Tuesday to Sunday from 11am to 11pm, from October 25.