When expats in Cambodia talk about beer gardens, it’s usually to bemoan the lack of rights for the female beer sellers or to dismiss the places out of hand as dens of iniquity. And while those are certainly valid concerns, there’s one thing the nay-sayers neglect to mention: you’ll find some of the best food in Phnom Penh at its beer gardens.
Cambodian beer gardens vary widely in their wholesomeness. Some are simply restaurants packed with the after-work crowd and serving dishes – usually of the barbecued meat variety, but featuring stir-fried seafood and vegetables as well – that are best accompanied by pitchers of beer. Others are as bad as you’ve heard, complete with karaoke performances and beer sellers whose job descriptions include more than just pouring pitchers.
In central Phnom Penh, though, the former outweigh the latter and you’re more likely to get a succulent plate of ribs than any sort of female attention. In fact, at the better beer gardens the beer sellers (please don’t call them beer girls) are unionized and wear notices asking to be treated respectfully.
So be prepared to pour your own beer, at least occasionally, and allow yourself to enjoy some of the least expensive, tastiest meals in town.
54 Langeach Sros
Definitely one of Phnom Penh’s culinary bright spots, 54 Langeach Sros serves a mean plate of ribs – tangy with a hint of sweetness and slightly spicy. Don’t bother ordering just one plate. The ribs can take a half-hour to arrive, but they’re always worth it. Goat with black ants, “fried fish on the fire lake” (a complicated dish that involves a whole deep-fried fish cooked at the table in a pool of coconut curry), and crab with young green pepper are all excellent and remarkably affordable.
15A St 178
Tel: 017 455 454
There’s a row of Khmer BBQ restaurants along the river on Koh Pich, and locals claim that this one is the best of the bunch. They offer three-liter beer towers of Angkor for just 23,000 riel and throw in an extra pitcher for good luck, so I’m not inclined to disagree. Try the cha g’dao sach moan, or stir-fried spicy chicken with basil, and the barbecued beef, or sach ko ang, which is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Menu (and signage) is all in Khmer.
Koh Pich, along the riverside, Phnom Penh
Tel: 012 500 190; 097 708 5006
Sovanna Restaurant has something to offer just about everyone. They have a newer, more upscale restaurant a few doors down, but aficionados claim that the menu, although the same, just isn’t as good as in the original location. Sovanna’s grilled beef and pork, tender, smoky and slightly sweet, are the standouts, but their sngor chrouk trey, fish soup with a lemongrass broth, lime juice and fresh herbs, is not to be missed. Their latest menu has photographs and English translations, making this a good first Khmer BBQ experience for out-of-town visitors.
2C St 21
Tel: 011 840 055