Phnom Penh is one of those few restaurants in the city known for spectacularly long wait times, just like Anton's or Ask for Luigi. On a typical weekday, you might be able to snag a table within 10 minutes, provided that you arrive before 6:00pm, but on Friday or Saturday evenings, expect a minimum wait time of 45 minutes. God help you if you happen to need a table on a holiday.
Thing is, these restaurants wouldn't have this reputation if it wasn't well-deserved. Universally praised as having the best chicken wings in the city, the restaurant has steadily gained popularity to the point that the owners' sons recently opened a Phnom Penh stall at the Richmond Night Market. Last I checked, they were doing amazingly well there, too.
So, what exactly is behind the magic that keeps people coming back to Chinatown for more?
Deep Fried Chicken Wings
Clearly, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention their chicken wings. At most specialty wing joints like Wings, Yagger's, and Torafuku, the majority of the flavour comes from the glaze, whereas Phnom Penh specializes in the deep-fried dry wing instead. Unlike other dry wings, salt is just a smaller aspect of the overall taste, as each bite yields a mixture of umami, salty, and sweet.
What exactly gives it this consistently juicy and delicious flavour seems to be some combination of salt, lemon pepper, and MSG on top of its lightly layered crispy batter. All this is magnified by a generous amount of sautéed crushed garlic bits and thinly chopped green onions, which as a whole, contribute to an explosion of flavour with each bite.
This doesn't even take the dipping sauce into account. Their signature wings come served with a side of lemon juice and black pepper dipping sauce, which perfectly complements each order of freshly deep-fried wings. I personally like to pair my wings with Vietnamese dipping sauce – a delicately balanced mixture of fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, and pickled carrots – for extra tang.
It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Phnom Penh's chicken wings are basically edible, high-protein crack.
Yet, Phnom Penh is no mere one-trick pony. Another flagship dish is their butter beef; or rather, their take on beef tataki or carpaccio. For those not in the know, the dish is simply a circular arrangement of thinly-sliced rib eye beef, wherein an inch-long section of the outside edges are seared, and the majority of the meat inside left quite rare. These rare sections are then covered with a tangy marinade.
As you may guess from the name, Phnom Penh serves up a unique Cambodian-Vietnamese dual cuisine offering, and these flavours shine through in the marinade. Made from what seems to be a soy-based vinaigrette and copious amounts of cilantro, ginger, and garlic, it adds a tasty acidic kick that makes for a breathtaking sensory experience, like viewing Doctor Strange for the first time in 3D.
For those of you worried about the safety of consuming relatively raw meat, take solace in the fact that Phnom Penh has been pumping out these dishes by the thousands for years with no incident. Just let it happen, and your body will thank you later.
Filet Beef Luc Lac
Next up is beef luc lac, another signature dish. Although I've eaten it myself countless times, I truthfully have no idea how to describe exactly what it is, except that it's indescribably delicious. From what I gather, it's a Vietnamese take on beef stir-fry, served over rice with a fried egg draped over top.
Before anything else, the beef here is amazingly tender, like it's been marinating for the entirety of the time that Law & Order: SVU has been on the air. There's also a lot of it in the dish, as Phnom Penh has usually been pretty generous with their servings.
The sauce is complex, and hard to describe. It's thick in texture and lightly savoury, with hints of sesame oil throughout, but the first detail you'd notice is that it tastes quite creamy, despite containing no hint of actual cream within. Cracking the yolk atop into the beef enhances this creaminess, and also makes for some great yolk porn for your Snapchat and Instagram stories.
Also, for those out there who don't shy away from large portion sizes, Phnom Penh offers a larger version of this dish, sans the white rice and egg. It's a great option for those of us trying to get our winter bulk on.
In the end, this is only just a starter guide to the magic and wonder that is Phnom Penh. Of course, there's something more for everyone within their menu, from deep-fried calamari for the risk-averse, to deep-fried frog legs for the more adventurous. It's one of the few must-try restaurants in Vancouver, so clearly, if you're still not convinced... we just can't be friends.