Phnom Penh has a longstanding reputation for dishing up great dining experiences. But recent culinary initiatives are stepping it up a notch. With the Urban Food Wars, Slaprea Food Festival and Jet’s Container Night Market all making their debut this year, the city is set to make a name for itself as a home to exceptional food.
It’s Numtok Noodle’s second night of business, and a steady crowd of curious young Cambodians drop by after work. On this Friday evening, Numtok’s Bun Laa offers two variations on his Thai boat noodles: yellow or white threads in a tangy beef soup thickened with blood. He assembles the bowls swiftly from behind the bar, which just happens to be located inside a shipping container.
The setting is Jet’s Container Night Market, a new village of restaurants, bars, and shops that are all housed in giant metal shipping containers. Similar container markets thrive in cities like Bangkok and Melbourne, boasting a lively atmosphere and quirky, industrial charm.
Numtok’s canary yellow coat of paint makes the noodle shop stand out, but many of the market vendors employ fun design elements that make every space feel distinct. Some use old-school edison light bulbs and reclaimed wood shutters to add a certain hip factor, while others add a second level for swanky rooftop lounges. All the while, live music blares on multiple stages.
After months of construction, the market is now open every night on National Assembly Street, just north of AEON Mall in an area surrounded by nightclubs. It’s just one recent development in the city’s booming restaurant scene. In addition to new businesses constantly opening around town, a few new projects are making the case that there’s never been a more exciting time to dine out in Phnom Penh.
Earlier this year, David Tea ate four hamburgers in one day.
He had help, of course. That fateful morning, he woke up his son and issued the news: “We’re going burger hunting.”
Tea estimates that he ate well over 20 burgers in a one-month span, all in the name of finding the best burger in Phnom Penh. The idea came from Darren Gall, the local food industry expert who ate his fair share of 16 burgers over the same period. Gall similarly hunted down the best burger in Hanoi on unofficial business not too long ago, but word quickly spread, people truly cared about the results, and Gall realized he was onto something.
“There is something more precious about burger culture than other food,” Gall said. “Everyone feels qualified to have an opinion about the best burger.”
“Every place that sells a burger is very passionate about its burger,” Tea added.
As soon as Facebook launched a public polling option, Gall realized it was time to take stock of Phnom Penh’s burgers and launched Burger Wars. Hundreds of people voted for their favorite burger joints online, and the top 10 finalists were judged by Gall, Tea and two other food-obsessed friends. They developed an elaborate scoring system, judging everything from the bun quality to sauces to presentation.
In February, Khmer-French-owned The Supreme Burgers and Cheesecakes was named the champion. Its winning burger, Le Mountain, offers explosive flavor with a sweet barbecue sauce, salty bacon and creamy raclette cheese—all sandwiched between two beef patties and a sesame seed bun.
“It was all done for fun, to shake things up a bit, get people motivated,” Gall said. “It wasn’t really about promoting outlets. It was about promoting food culture and promoting Phnom Penh.”
Still, those who made it to the Burger Wars finals saw an uptick in business as voters rushed around to try different competitors.
In Gall’s roughly 15 years living in Cambodia, he doesn’t recall any other large-scale, friendly competitions between restaurants. Tea thinks Burger Wars “opened up the industry a bit,” and Gall said the response has been enormous. And now that one has been done, it’s time for more. Gall launched Urban Food Wars as an umbrella for future food-based competitions. He expects some to follow a similar format as Burger Wars and others to be special, one-off events.
“We’re only limited by our imaginations,” he said.
The pair mentioned future food war possibilities like coffee or sushi, but Tea is pushing for nom banh chock, the classic Khmer dish of rice noodles topped with fish gravy and loads of fresh vegetables.
“I’m keen on doing something with the local cuisine, getting more of the expats trying the local food,” said Tea, who is Khmer-Austrailian. “A lot of the foreigners who first arrive, they don’t know what the local food is. Most places don’t cater to the expat market and the local market.”
The fact that there are so many food categories with enough potential competitors to choose from, though, speaks to what Gall calls “an explosion of growth” in Phnom Penh’s restaurant scene. With Burger Wars alone, the public nominated 37 unique burger restaurants, and Gall knows of at least a dozen more that went unacknowledged. That’s a massive change from 10 or even five years ago.
“I used to joke when I first came here that every expat with a restaurant was ‘Bob the Plumber’ or ‘Fred the Electrician’ who just decided they wanted to stay here, so they opened up a restaurant or a bar,” Gall said.
In addition to local Khmer spots, he recalls hotel restaurants, French restaurants and the sort of places that claim to do Khmer, American, Italian, and Mexican food. Now?
“We’re getting a lot of young chefs coming from overseas and they’re cooking better, quality meals,” Tea said.
New food stalls
At Olympic Stadium, there are mobs of people everywhere. They’re crowded around a stand selling pork bao, and around another grilling whole shrimp. They’re crowded around the crowds, peeking over their shoulders to if they, too, want to wait or move on.
Moving on is tempting, as there is a ton to choose from: pizza, noodle soups, stir-fries, Indian curries, pulled pork sliders, fried fish balls, toast topped with pandan cream, and the ever-popular genre of things served on sticks. There’s a cookie decorating station, go-kart racing and a pizza-eating contest. Elsewhere, chefs dressed in their traditional whites and tall hats demonstrate how to make sugar candy, molding the sticky stuff into neon-tinted deer, mice and pigs.
It’s one of the biggest food festivals ever held in Phnom Penh: Slaprea, which took place over the course of a weekend in March. There were roughly 100 stands, creating a one kilometer-long, pop-up market that saw more than 12,000 people over two days, according to the organizers at The Idea. The group hopes to make Slaprea an annual event.
“Turnout was absolutely beyond our expectations,” said vendor Ewa Jankowska in a press release. Her business, the Pelican Food Company, touted savory meat pies and other baked goods at Slaprea. “We sold out twice and we’re very happy that it was locals trying our products, whereas usually it’s mostly foreigners.”
Tea of Burger Wars admits there tends to be a split between Khmer and expat diners.
“Expats usually go to restaurants they’re comfortable with, where the menu is in English,” Tea said. “A lot of Khmer people – speaking from personal experience with my own family – don’t want to eat at a Western restaurant because they’re in Cambodia. They’ll stick with Asian food because they think it’s likely to be better.”
Affordability becomes key in bridging that divide – and a wide array of options. That’s where large-scale events like Slaprea or Jet’s Container Night Market come into play, and clearly there’s demand for them. At Slaprea, where dishes were priced between $1 and $3, the vast majority of attendees were Khmer, but it wasn’t unusual to see expats rubbing shoulders with locals. Most vendors at the night market price their bites in a similar range. With 224 unique stalls offering a wide array of Khmer, Korean, Japanese, American, Thai, and other flavors, Jet’s Container Night Market has the potential to become a favorite of locals, expats and even tourists.
The project feels unusually ambitious when you stroll through it, with each stall offering their own character and vibe.
A nice way to wrap up an evening is at Z Rolling Ice, an unassuming stall where ice cream is made-to-order on an icy plate. Watch as creme anglais and toppings get mixed, frozen and rolled up into an attractive sundae, with a slightly chewier texture than a traditional scoop. Sometimes called stir-fried ice cream, it’s a style that was first popularized in Thailand but hasn’t really spread through Phnom Penh yet.
Owner Somaly Lach, a teacher by day, had been interested in introducing rolled ice cream to the city but was waiting for the right opportunity. The excitement around the container market fit the bill.
“That’s why I want to do it,” she said. “It’s a new concept in Cambodia.”
BY: Janelle Bitker