Review: Mexicano, Phnom Penh

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.

Chef Mario Iberra Mexicano

Chef Mario Ibarra wants to feed you the best tacos in Phnom Penh.

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.

Mexicano restaurant Phnom Penh

A little bit of Mexico in BKK1.

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.

Mexicano Phnom Penh

Delicious, delicious carnitas tacos at Mexicano.

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.

Mexicano

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
mexicanocambodia.com

6 Responses to Review: Mexicano, Phnom Penh

  1. Wow, remarkable review Lina, well done.
    I do need to ask you a question, have you been to Alma Cafe?…maybe not?
    Probably that’s why the sentences; never truly delivered?*or/ and until know” or even Mexicano is the best thing to happen to Mexican food in Phnom Penh? ..Really?

    Yes, there are many Mexican restaurants in the city, but you can’t just closed an eye and not mentioned Alma Cafe, that after 3 years of being a very known establishment by its home style Mexican cuisine, cooked also by a Mexican its well known and loved by the expat community in the Phnom Penh. (you can do a survey on this)
    The Mexicano, is doing a very good job with tis items (I tried them already, and appreciated each of them). The Mexicano is for sure another good addition to our options.
    I would like to invite you for breakfast/ lunch or dinner at ALMA Cafe one of these days, so you can try their juicy tacos as well.

    Adios!

    • Lina says:

      Hi Carlos,

      Yes, I’ve tried Alma Cafe several times. And three years ago, I would have said that Alma Cafe was the best thing to happen to Mexican food in Phnom Penh. But I was there last month and had the piratas platter and wasn’t as impressed as I had been on previous visits. Because I don’t live nearby, I can’t come all the time and have never gotten to try your tacos. I wish you had a few permanent items on the menu — like tacos — so I could try them when I am in Phnom Penh. They look great in the photos on your Facebook page!

      Lina

  2. Joseph says:

    I’ll agree. I’m from the US and lived in Asia for 15 years, while not an expert in Mexican cuisine, I can say this is the best Mexican that I’ve had in Asia. Yeah, it’s that good.

  3. Craig Etcheson says:

    I happened upon Mexicano by chance, and ate there twice in the last month. Spectacular both times. And I agree, the al pastor tacos are so good that they almost make you cry. I haven’t had tacos that delicious since I moved away from Los Angeles in the late 80s. This is the authentic stuff, people.

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