Monivong Boulevard’s neighbouring Chinese noodle houses have become popular haunts for expats and locals alike. Post Weekend takes a look at the stories behind the tasty noodle bowls
The owner of the Chinese Noodle Restaurant is a hard-faced man with a hearty laugh who goes only by Mr Wang. From Lianyungang, a city in Jiangsu province famous for being the hometown of the Monkey King in the Chinese literary epic Journey to the West, he first came to the Kingdom in 2000.
Initially he worked with a company that managed overseas construction projects financed by the Chinese government, but when a friend returning to China that same year asked him to take over his restaurant, Mr Wang decided to stay – despite having no experience in restaurants and not being able to speak Khmer.
“My relatives in China did not have a very good job, so I contacted them to see if they were interested in making business here,” he said.
“Monivong Boulevard was still under construction then. Lots of machines.”
Mr Wang’s noodle restaurant specializes in la mian, or pulled noodles, a type of thick wheat noodle originally from China’s craggy northwest but now ubiquitous throughout the country. The noodles are made similarly to pizza, through a noisy dough-abusing routine of tugging, slapping and stretching.
The Noodle Restaurant has become a regular haunt for Phnom Penh’s large Chinese population, and has also proven popular with Cambodians – Mr Wang estimated that 90 per cent of his clientele are locals. And as testimony to its popularity with expats, the Noodle Restaurant received a mention in Lonely Planet. The small menu has stayed the same since it first opened in 1998, Mr Wang said, though where it used to cost 80 cents a bowl, it now costs $2.
Just before the lunch rush on Tuesday, Mr Wang asked one of his Cambodian cooks how one of the various noodle broths was going.
“The duck broth is ready,” replied the cook in shaky Mandarin.
“Ah, the duck broth is ready. Let me see the duck broth.”
“The duck broth is not ready.”
“Is the duck broth ready or not?”
“No duck broth.”
Communication difficulties are something that Mr Wang, only able to speak a little Khmer, has become used to. Another is competition. There were no other Chinese restaurants on the street when he first took over, he said. Now there are dozens.
“There are several la mian restaurants in Cambodia,” said Mr Wang when asked about the secret to his success. “But we are a bit older and cheaper.”
Mr Wang’s main rival, Noodles Dumplings Chinese Food, opened directly next door in 2013. But in the noodle department, they were not always at odds, as the other restaurant initially used a machine to make their noodles. It was not until a year later when they poached one of Mr Wang’s noodle pullers with a higher salary offer (Mr Wang claims he had already “dismissed” him), that the neighbours became la mian competitors.
Soon, Noodles Dumplings Chinese Food added a new noodle page to their menu, with a layout design suspiciously similar to the Noodle Restaurant’s.
After Mr Wang’s old landlord began to renovate his building and forced The Noodle Restaurant to move a few doors up the street, Mr Wang decided to stay put in the new location.
Yang Guiying, the stick-thin and weathered manager of Noodles Dumplings Chinese Food, said she knew little and cared less about a noodle rivalry.
Guiying came last year from Anhui province to take over the shop from her son, who works for a Beijing telecom company here. He had acquired the shop from a previous owner.
“I came here because I missed my son,” she said in singsong country dialect. Across from her a pile of dough sat covered by a cloth, ready for a day’s pulling.
Guiying – who lives in a small room above the dining area – said the decision to add la mian to the menu came from the Cambodian landlord who owns the restaurant, and was made soon after she arrived.
She then began to leaf through the thick menu laid out on the table, patting each page of colourful dishes, as if to say, “Look, it’s not all about the noodles.”
But back at the Noodle Restaurant, it was all about the noodles. Near the door, a Cambodian noodle puller flung and contorted a slab of dough with the practiced efficiency of a pro. Inside, the place was buzzing with lunchtime slurpers.
Mr Wang too insisted there was no bad blood between the two eateries.
“Our relations are fine. Everyone thinks we’re fighting, but they do their business, we do ours. That’s all,” he said with a chuckle.
“They can be open; we can also be open. Competition is normal, we accept that,” he said, before adding with a smirk, “But I believe we’re better than theirs.”
He said he was happy to maintain the business as it was, though he was in the process of training new staff to eventually run the restaurant.
“We are all getting old,” he said. “My brother-in-law is 60!”