If you’ve been wandering Street 136 at night, you may have noticed a new street food cart selling tacos and burritos. Now it is true that the menu at Phana’s Hot Tacos is an exact reproduction of Annabella’s Hot Tacos, the hipster taco truck that cruises around BKK1 slanging mediocre tacos at inflated prices. And it is also true that the lone employee of Phana’s Hot Tacos was formerly an employee of Annabella’s Hot Tacos who left, apparently taking the recipes with him. This, my friends, is no less than a taco war.
My complaints about Annabella’s Hot Tacos are two-fold. Or maybe three-fold. First, they are completely non-authentic tacos. An authentic taco has meat — preferably carnitas or al pastor or luscious, luscious lengua — onions, and cilantro. Salsa and hot sauce is served on the side. That is it. Tacos do not have cheese on them. Tacos do not have avocado on them. Look, I get it. You want to be creative; you want to express yourself. So put cheese on your tacos. But for the love of god, if you are billing yourself as “authentic,” have at least one traditional taco on the menu for purists like me.
My second complaint is more serious. The corn tortillas Annabella’s Hot Tacos use are like damp cardboard. They are frozen, industrial corn tortillas that taste like they have been sitting in the freezer at AusKhmer for three years before being unearthed and defrosted. Taco lovers, Bayon Market often sells masa and USA Donut can order it. I am just a pleb with no skin in the taco game and I make my own tortillas. In fact, after bringing a tortilla press from California to Cambodia, I decided to upgrade and my father hauled over a restaurant-style tortilla maker for me. I can now churn out more tortillas in an hour than this taco truck would use over a long weekend. So if I can make fresh corn tortillas in Cambodia, why can’t Annabella’s Hot Tacos?
My third complaint is the price. $2 per taco is not outrageous, and if the tacos were excellent it would be a fair price, even if you do have to eat them on the street standing up. But a $2 taco with a tasteless tortilla isn’t a great deal. I was distraught when I realized that they were spending more buying frozen tortillas than it would cost to make fresh tortillas, thus their anemic tortillas are actually the reason their tacos are overpriced.
I said I only had three complaints, but the fact that this is so clearly a hipster operation with their pickled red onions and “street art”-style truck irritates me. The first time I went to Annabella’s Hot Tacos I had just gotten back from the California desert, where I gorged myself on dozens of $1 tacos made by actual taco-loving Spanish speakers. Maybe my standards were too high. So I waited six months and tried Annabella’s Hot Tacos again, and although I will admit that the fillings are tasty, the tortillas are still uninspired and I still found everything about the enterprise grating.
So I filed this away and never planned to write about it until I came across a smaller Cambodian-run mobile taco vendor on Street 136 called Phana’s Hot Tacos. The menu is very familiar, having been lifted from Annabella’s Hot Tacos, right down to the pickled red onion, cheese, and avocado taco toppings. They serve three types of tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and nachos. The main difference between Annabella’s Hot Tacos and Phana’s Hot Tacos is the fact that Phana’s only operate at night — usually until 11 or 11:30 p.m. — and the price: Phana’s tacos are $1.50 each or two for $2.50.
There’s also the fact that they are not in the least bit hipster (although I find their continued use of the term “hot tacos” questionable). They’ve parked themselves right in the middle of sexpat central and all they want is to sell tacos to drunk old men. This endeared them to me, and the fact is, a mediocre tortilla is much easier to stomach when you have a thick base coat of Cambodia draft in your belly.
Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t resist telling the server — a relative of Phana — that making tortillas is incredibly easy, tastes better than frozen ones, and is much cheaper, and he seemed entirely uninterested. If Annabella’s Hot Tacos isn’t doing it, he’s not going to bother.
In summary, I prefer Phana’s Hot Tacos for a late night snack, but I don’t fault all of the taco ignoramuses in Phnom Penh (and yes, I mean you, my British and Irish friends) for frequenting Annabella’s Hot Tacos for lunch. But please, for the love of all that’s sacred, convince them to buy some masa and make their own tortillas; it’s the right thing to do.
Annabella’s Hot Tacos
Open Tuesday through Thursday but check their Facebook for specific schedules and location
Usually parked on Street 51 and 302, BKK1, Phnom Penh
T: 012 526 077
Phana’s Hot Tacos
Open daily, 6:30 to 11:30 p.m. (ish)
Street 136 between Streets 5 and 13 (parked in front of Dara’s Motorbikes), Daun Penh, Phnom Penh