Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Phnom Penh House
Reviewed Phnom Penh House: Saturday, March 10, 2012
Oh, Phnom Penh House. You've been a staple in my life for over two decades, and I will continue to visit you and eat your delicious food until one of us ceases to exist, and at the rate you're opening new locations, well, I know where my great-great-grandchildren will go for Cambodian food in the Bay Area.
The staff knows my family from our frequent patronage and remembers our quirks—for example, they offered my Dad a pen when we sat down because they know he likes to make notes when we're all ordering, because we usually order a LOT.
We have staple dishes, like the eggplant with pork, fried calamari, charbroiled chicken, and pan-fried noodles (which I used to daydream about with startling vividness when I was a child) and the swing items, like the garlic and basil salmon, Cambodian crepe, prahok katis (spicy ground pork with coconut milk served with fresh vegetables), and string beans with tofu. This visit, we ordered everything. And it was amazing. I've been on such a crunchy vegetable kick lately—raw, blanched, pickled, etc—so the prahok katis felt like the most perfect dish imaginable. The cabbage and cucumbers compliment the ground pork, which is spicy and warm and perfectly exemplifies that whole “umami” flavor. The incredible charbroiled chicken also comes with a side of my favorite pickled vegetables in the world. Growing up, I never enjoyed eggplant (I'm very particular when it comes to textures, and I couldn't comprehend the awesomeness of eggplant until I was in my 20s), but now it's one of my favorite things to order. We used to always get susa, a gelatinous dessert made from seaweed and flour, but they don't have it anymore, which was a little disappointing, but it's difficult to be too sad when you're eating fried bananas and ice cream. The portions are gigantic and we easily fed 5 people for about $20 each, and we still had a ton of leftovers (which didn't last long).
It's super comfortable—very casual and clean with pretty decorations, like photos of traditional dancers and a frieze of Angkor Wat above the wainscoting, complete with raised trees and tiny hollows for doors and windows. I saw a little kid at another table stick his fingers into the miniature doorway above him, and remembered how I used to gaze at the relief when I was younger and daydream about what it must look like inside the real building.
It's an excellent place to bring coworkers, kids, or a low-key date (their newest location in Alameda, Angkor Grill, is where you'd want to bring a fancier date). Phnom Penh House has been owned and run for almost 30 years by the Do family, who fled Cambodia while it was under Khmer Rouge rule, and they now have three restaurants in the East Bay. A Cambodian-American friend of mine (with extremely high standards) once told me that the food is deliciously authentic and similar to what his parents cooked at home.
Plus, it's about three blocks away from BART, or if you get there early enough (which you should; it gets crowded after 6:30), parking is never a problem.
Location: Los Altos
Favorite Restaurant: Pho Vi Hoa
Reviewed Phnom Penh House: Saturday, May 5, 2012
I was both curious and excited at the prospect of trying Phnom Penh House, having no knowledge of or experience with Cambodian cuisine. Now, if I were to return for another meal, I would know what to expect: a clean, cozy space offering prompt, friendly service that unfortunately doesn’t quite make up for the sometimes lackluster food.
Despite its inherent novelty (you could count the Cambodian restaurants in the Bay Area on one hand), Phnom Penh House is fairly unassuming, located on a quiet Chinatown street corner. Once inside, however, we found the service friendly, helpful and remarkably attentive.
We were seated immediately, as it was early and the restaurant still more than half-empty, though by the time we left every seat was full. Servers were perpetually topping off our glasses, pouring from water pitchers filled with ice (win) and sliced oranges (double win). Our server smiled the whole time and, when asked, was happy to make a few recommendations, something we appreciated as first-time diners.
Once the food arrived, however, I began wondering if we would have been better off making our own selections. The spring rolls were pleasantly crispy and light, but the filling seemed under-seasoned, the accompanying “house sauce” a bit anemic. The pan-fried noodles, with their orange hue and mildly tangy, sweet-sour flavor, were like a watered-down version of pad Thai.
The poached salmon in garlic basil wine sauce was more flavorful thanks to a savory brown gravy enhanced by black mushrooms and complemented nicely by fresh basil. However, the dish arrived lukewarm, which I consider an even worse offense than improper seasoning; moreover, it seemed particularly egregious given that the dining room was still far from busy at that point.
The kitchen, however, did earn some redemption with a couple very tasty dishes. The charbroiled beef skewers were garlicky and richly beefy, with a dark, caramel sweetness that beautifully complemented the smoky grilled flavor. The deep-fried stuffed chicken wings were also good, each wing boasting an ephemeral crispy skin and a well-spiced filling with an assertive kick of lemongrass.
Overall, it was a decent meal for a decent price but if you don’t live in the area, it’s hardly worth a special trip.
Occupation: Feng Shui Consultant
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Grand Café
Reviewed Phnom Penh House: Thursday, April 26, 2012
Phnom Penh House is an incredible find! Joining friends from Alameda, we visited this Cambodian restaurant on the edge of Oakland’s Chinatown and while the location is quite unassuming, the small crowd gathering showed just how popular a destination it is. We had no wait in getting seated and rather enjoyed dining near the owner’s family who were using the back tables and allowed their kids to run around helping themselves making the place feel determinedly homey.
The food is incredible. Everything smells, looks and tastes fresh, and is perfectly seasoned to add flavor rather than overwhelm. The Chicken Soup had lime juice added in, making each spoonful burst. The Charbroiled Chicken was juicy and, unlike similar restaurants, was made up entirely of dark meat. And the Chicken Curry was remarkable in how the eggplant and the potatoes were both cooked to an optimal tenderness -- they must cook them separate or time the cooking -- delicious. And the dessert -- yes, “the” dessert as they only offer one option -- is an unbelievably mouth watering deep friend banana that has a light, crispy batter with sesame seeds and served with ice cream.
The atmosphere is basic. A few attempts at creating ambience had been made and were appreciated, but overall, the place felt a bit neglected. Thankfully, the food more than makes up for this. The service was friendly and attentive -- at one point the grandfather came over to inspect our work on our dessert, nodding his approval. And the food seemed to stream out endlessly leaving us unable to finish one course before more dishes arrived… but we managed, and never felt rushed to leave. Of course the big shock was the bill, how we could eat so much for so little doesn’t make sense! Even if the parking in the area is a challenge, I can’t wait to go back!