Despite an abundance of Mexican restaurants, Phnom Penh has never truly delivered in the taco department…until now. Housed in an unassuming shophouse on Street 288, Mexicano, a new BKK1 restaurant, is taking Phnom Penh Mexican food to the next level. Headed by Mario Galan Ibarra, a chef who originally hails from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the restaurant serves refreshingly authentic Mexican fare, prepared by Ibarra himself.
If you’ve followed my Twitter rants and blog tirades about the sad state of tacos in Phnom Penh, you’ll know that this is a topic close to my heart. Growing up in California, I’ve eaten a lot of tacos, and by comparison, the average Phnom Penh Mexican restaurant always fails to impress — tacos drowned in lettuce and cheese are not, in my book, tacos. Or at least, not tacos worth eating. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing a taco needs on it is onion and cilantro, with a side of salsa, and a large majority of the 122 million people living in Mexico agree with me.
But in a city brimming with Mexican restaurants, an authentic taco has proved elusive. So when I was tipped off that a Mexican chef had recently opened a restaurant where he was making his own tortillas, I jumped on the first plane to Phnom Penh.
Chef Mario Ibarra, who has cheffed all over Mexico and more recently, in Singapore, has put care into crafting the menu and appearance of Mexicano. He expressed dissatisfaction with the interior — he said doesn’t have enough time to decorate it properly — but it looked good to me: walls sponge-painted in several vivid colors, a display of wooden Mexican folk carvings, a collection of framed Mexican wrestling masks, and, of course, the requisite Mexican flag and sombrero. There’s outside seating that’s a popular spot to enjoy a frozen margarita in the evenings.
But who cares about the decor, right? Let’s get to the tacos, starting with the tortillas. When it comes to tacos, homemade tortillas are essential. Have I complained, at great length, about the reliance on frozen, cardboard-tasting corn tortillas in Cambodia before? Not at Mexicano — they make their own.
Next is the filling. We tried carnitas and al pastor. The carnitas is sensational: slow-cooked fatty pork, finished by crisping the edges so it has the traditional soft yet slightly crunchy texture. I’ve spent a lot of time perfecting my own carnitas recipe, and it doesn’t come close to the carnitas offered by Ibarra, who cooks his carnitas for 18 hours. Meanwhile, my dining companion was nearly in tears over the al pastor, so delicious was the pork marinated with dried chili, spices, achiote, and pineapple juice.
The tacos were served with chopped raw onion, cilantro, and salsa on the side, and the al pastor tacos had a slice of grilled pineapple on top. That’s it. Real tacos are simple.
We also tried the guacamole and azteca chicken soup. Both were solid, but didn’t hold a candle to the tacos. Mexicano is the best thing to happen to Mexican food in Phnom Penh. So go, go and eat tacos. I’ll be back to try more of the menu soon, and I’ll update this post when I do.
Open Mondays 6 to 11 p.m. and Tuesday through Sunday 12 to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m.
29 Street 288 (between streets 57 and 63), BKK1, Phnom Penh
T: 096 861 2353