By Sarah Bennett
If anyone ever asks you what Cambodian food tastes like, just take them to Phnom Penh Noodle and start ordering. The menu at this tiny home-style dining room (no, really, it’s built into the house of the family who started it 31 years ago, and locals call it “The Noodle Shack”) is by no means comprehensive, but when it comes to sampling the complex mishmash of flavors, textures and ingredients that comprise Khmer cooking, it’s a brilliant place to start.
As the name implies, the focus here is noodles and, more specifically, kuy teav, or as many like to call it, Cambodian pho. Not only is it a bowl of meaty broth traditionally eaten for breakfast like the Vietnamese classic, it also comes as a base setup that you can add too with a tableful of condiments, from sweet to spicy, crunchy to silky.
But that is where the comparison to pho stops, because kuy teav at The Shack is so much more that it makes pho seem like salty MSG water (kuy teav came first, by the way). Firstly, the soup is far more customizable right out of the kitchen, meaning you need to make some choices beyond bowl size and meats.
Do you have a preference on noodles? There are the standard thin rice noodles, but there are also large rice noodles, egg noodles of various sizes, pin (or “tear drop”) noodles and something listed as “mama noodles,” which is really just the wavy noodles you’ll find in any pack of Top Ramen.
Also: do you want those noodles wet or dry? Wet will come as a familiar bowl of soup; dry means the ingredients are in one big bowl and the thin, porky broth comes in a bowl on the side with a giant scraggly pig knuckle plopped in the middle. (Doing the latter lets you dose your noodles with the broth, suck out the marrow in the bones and dip some cha quai–sweet Cambodian fry bread–in whatever’s left).
What kind of meat are you looking for? If offal makes you queasy, you should probably leave now. The house special is, of course, Phnom Penh Noodle, with sliced and ground pork meat along with stomach, liver and shrimp. Beef stew gets you beef, tripe and tendon. Mo’s special–named after one of the three second-generation owners who now run the place–is ground pork, sliced pork and beef balls. The Chluy Bowl is named after a young Cambodian parody singer who stops by when he’s in town (“chluy” means rude) and includes beef intestine, quail eggs and pork rinds.
Once your kuy teav hits the table, it’s time to get to work, bringing your own level of balance to the medley of flavors. Squeeze bottles filled with hoisin sauce, chili paste and a house “chluy” sauce (a sweeter, smoother Sriracha alternative) line the table. A rack is filled with cups of sides like salted red soy beans and pickled green beans. There’s also the pancake-syrup dispenser filled with sweet, garlic fish sauce (not unlike the one you’d pour over a bowl of Vietnamese bún). It all almost makes the plate of bean sprouts and lemons dropped as soon as you ordered seem like an afterthought.
Overwhelmed yet? Don’t worry. Unlike visits to The Shack 10 years ago, the place is now run by friendly, bilingual staff of Khmericans, kids born here who didn’t want to see the local institution their auntie started go under when she retired. They gave the place a new paint job, a fresh landscaping of native plants, an Instagram, Facebook page and Snapchat, and will happily help confused Western palates navigate the menu (the stir-fried noodle plates are “kind of like Pad Thai” and the meat bread is “basically an empanada,” one said recently).
That’s why it’s best to start your adventures in Khmer eating here, the least daunting of all Cambodia Town restaurants, then go forth from the land of kuy teav. An even wider world of deep fried catfish, beef-anchovy salads and prahok-laden dishes awaits.