Aborted Mission Mission

Angkor Borei, San Francisco

I missed rice.

Three weeks of nothing but beef, microbrews, Texas-style barbecue and varying shades of Mexican had begun to take its inevitable toll. I’d had a recommendation from a Phnom Penh friend that Angkor Borei Restaurant in the deep, deep south of Mission Street in San Francisco was the real deal for Cambodian food. They even had the bad painting of Angkor Wat on display which in my mind is the Cambodian equivalent of displaying a Michelin star. It’s easy to get there: just catch the MUNI J-Church straight to where San Jose meets Mission Street.

So close, so far away

What my friend neglected to mention was that Angkor Borei was closed on Tuesday, the only free day that I could make it there. Being out the front of the restaurant did actually make me close on Tuesday, but not actually close enough to review or eat anything. As much as I’m all for postmodernism, not eating at a restaurant precludes discussing the food.

Pho Phu Quoc, San Francisco

To add insult to injury, the Vietnamese substitute dinner was at Pho Phu Quoc, named after the Cambodian island that thanks to some French colonial geographic reshuffling, ended up as part of Vietnam.

Pho at Pho Phu Quoc, SF

Their pho was not quite right. Plenty of tai (raw sliced beef), beef balls that tasted uncharacteristically like they were made from actual cow parts, and soup that tasted like its sole ingredients were cinnamon powder and cloves. It was somewhat frightening to spot a new Vina-Malaysian fusion food on the menu – pho satay – regular pho with a hearty slug of commercial satay sauce for good measure.

Locations: Angkor Borei Restaurant, 3471 Mission St , San Francisco.

Pho Phu Quoc, 1816 Irving St (At 19th Ave) , San Francisco.

Victoria St. Melbourne: Known unknowns

There is good food everywhere if you know how to look. Everyone already knows where to look. In Melbourne, where food rates as much of local obsession as the queer Australian code of football or being better than Sydney at everything (apart from being queer), the chances of finding a “hidden gem” amongst the restaurants is unlikely. The real challenge is finding the best dishes within the known areas. The known unknowns, in modern anti-guerrilla warfare parlance.

Victoria Street in Richmond is one of the Melbournes’s pre-eminent Vietnamese hubs. It’s packed full of food that puts much of Ho Chi Minh City’s best to shame and it isn’t near as hard to find. Your best bets for most of the restaurants are to eat the foods that are named on the front windows of the store. They’re displaying them so prominently for a reason.

Vietnamese herbs in Melbourne
Fresh Indochinese herbage! Top row: Thai basil (xang hum), rice paddy herb (maom), fishwort (poel trei). Bottom row: Possibly celery (? Feel free to out-guess me, botanists).

Amongst the crowded Vina strip there are a handful of dedicated pho restaurants serving nothing but beef and chicken soups, most notably a second outlet of the Footscray-based Hung Vuong and Pho Dzung.

Pho Dzung - Melbourne

I was most tempted by Pho Dzung because a few evenings earlier when I dropped by with a vegetarian friend only to find that the single dish that they could conceive that contained no meat was a fried egg on plain rice. The notion that vegetarianism is weird and foreign suggests that this is just like the real Vietnam.

Pho from Pho Dzung Melbourne

Pho Dzung’s pho bo tai (A$6, small bowl, above) is a carnivore’s delight. The silky smooth broth breathes pure meat. The tai, thin slices of raw beef that warm through in the broth, couldn’t be much juicier. A few doors down at the grocer, there are a huge assortment of deep-fried snacks that I tend to associate with Cambodia rather than its most hated enemy.

Cambodian food Anksom Cheik Chien - Melbourne

The num anksom cheik (A$2), which in Phnom Penh can be conveniently found in front of the Chinese Embassy on Mao Tse Toung Blvd, comes chopped, smothered in tinned coconut milk and with a complimentary plastic spork. Not quite fresh from the barbecue but still a good (and previously unknown) find.

Nouveau Pho de Paris

Nouveau pho de Paris

Should I expect a cheese plate? Pho Bo(cuse)? French onion soup with noodles? These are questions that have weighed heavily on my mind in the two odd years that I have been passing by Nouveau Pho de Paris on Monivong boulevard, Phnom Penh. Both Cambodian and Vietnamese foods have successfully integrated their former colonial ruler’s nosh in a way that makes it seem natural, but you should not fool with pho. It is one of the world’s perfect street foods like pizza, burritos, souvlaki or laksa. Like all of these dishes, there are defined limits within which there is plenty of room for play. There is no room in pho for nouveau Parisians.

Judging from the photos displayed under the glass-topped tables, the Nouveau’s menu seemed to contain a random array of Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer foods with no obvious reference to anything French. The lunchtime crowd may have had a Parisian fresh from the Sorbonne amongst them though: my waiter was confused as to my lingua franca and opened in French to which I parried with Khmer. He returned with a fine and unexpected play in English. Unable to answer with anything witty or Vietnamese, I ordered the pho bo without checking out their menu. The atmosphere was certainly more rarefied than your average pho stall: air con; real wooden chairs; and Cambodia’s velvet Elvis equivalent, lurid paintings of Angkor Wat.

Nouveau pho de Paris

NP de P’s pho rated fairly well on the meat index with a hearty selection of cow parts – some corned beef, sliced stomach and tendon, and a pair of suspiciously buoyant beef balls. On the opposing herb front: basil, saw mint, bean shoots were provided in abundance on the side. A pile of weedy local coriander and both spring and white onions were already added to the soup. Noodles were wide and commercial and the stock was muscular and sweet but not hugely complex.

Nouveau pho de Paris

One mid-size bowl of nouveau pho de boeuf: US$1.50, tea gratis.

Location: #26Eo, Monivong Blvd, Phnom Penh

The Russian Market (Psar Toul Tom Poung)

Assigned its Soviet moniker due to its proclivity for stocking Moscow’s goods during the Cold War, all manner of pirated wares and locally made trinkets now replace Communist comestibles at this crowded, ramshackle bazaar. Instead of being housed in a single building, the Russian Market has mostly grown by a process of agglomeration whereby individual store holders piece together their patch of real estate with sheets of corrugated iron, cut-rate cement, and hubris. The result is mayhem but there is some semblance of organisation thanks to the Khmer tradition of grouping like businesses together.

Psar Toul Tom Poung

The northeast corner is full of Daelim and Honda motorcycle parts and tools, the northern outside edge is fruit (both imported and local), and the northern central section contains meat, veggies and dried foods. There is a band of small fast food vendors through the centre on the western side. Slender alleys of pirated clothes and shoes are on the eastern side and run all the way to the southern end, with a centre section full of cheap tailors. The southernmost edge is pirated DVDs/CDs, software, and tourist t-shirts. The southwest corner is carved paraphernalia and stoneware. Nestled amongst these spontaneous provinces, you’ll also find practically everything else that you’ll want to ship home from Cambodia: crockery, lamps, handbags, silks, jewelry, photocopied books, Buddhist kitsch at prices lower than practically everywhere in Asia.

Prahok and dried fish at Russian Market

As a food destination and much like the above photo, Russian Market is a mixed bag. Thanks to the low zinc-coated ceiling, the dull oppressive heat is your inescapable shopping companion and due to this, the standard of fresh fruit and vegetables is passable if you arrive in the morning and slowly degrades as the day progresses.

The meats of wrath
This little piggy went to market.

Fresh fish at Russian Market, Phnom Penh

For fresh meat and seafood, the produce is generally not of the same quality as the larger Central Market and very little of it is kept on ice. You’ll occasionally be able to cut a good deal for prawns (bawngkia) on ice, live langoustine (bawngkang) or mudcrabs (kdaam) simply because the demand isn’t as high at the Russian Market as it is elsewhere.

Prahok and dried small fish at Russian Market, Phnom Penh

If you’re easily overwhelmed by the smell of fermented and dried aquatic life, then this is not the place for you.

The central group of fast food stalls seems to be the only area where there is a common roof, now stained jet black from years of cooking oil smoke and charcoal fire. By Western standards of hygiene, it looks unreservedly grim, especially as the decaying cooking detritus builds to an olfactory crescendo of putrefaction shortly after lunch. There are a handful of great Khmer meals to be had here that are hard to find in Phnom Penh’s restaurants, a few of which I’ve only ever seen cooked on a mobile cart. One of these is the Khmer version of the Vietnamese pancake, Banh Xeo.

Num Banh Xeo at Russian Market

This banh xeo (2500 riel, US$0.62) was at least a foot long and had enough lettuce, fishwort (chee poel trei) and Vietnamese coriander (chee krassang) to sustain a large warren of rabbits. The egg and rice flour crepe had an almost perfectly crispy, wok-tainted skin and was packed solid with cooked ground pork, whole small-ish prawns and bean shoots. While I had a tough time eating the whole thing, a tiny Khmer woman seated next to me managed to inhale two in quick succession, in a trick akin to stuffing twenty clowns into a comedy Volkswagen. I wanted to ask her if there was anything up her sleeves, but my Khmer just doesn’t stretch that far.

Location:The Russian Market, Cnr St. 155 and St.444, Phnom Penh

Pho and breaks at Saigon Restaurant

Saigon Restaurant

I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that Indochina’s breakbeat scene is going to cut loose soon. There’s enough cheap midi keyboards floating around the music stores and the best software that money can pirate available. As soon as people run out of rhymes for “Sabai” then producers of bad Khmer pop will snap from their karaoke haze and start syncopating some big fat beats. This suspicion has been badly compounded by my dinner of pho and Tiger lager at Saigon Restaurant last night. Shortly after being seated by the staff, I was assaulted with a few tracks from Roni Size’s New Forms and the Fatboy Slim remix of 1998 classic Renegade Master, all played at ear-bleed volume. Extremely fishy.

pho at Saigon Restaurant

As you can see from the above photo, by night Saigon Restaurant is poorly lit by a paltry array of fairy lights, possibly to replicate that feeling of eating pho from an unlit roadside. An unlit roadside with a bass bin. In my pho bo ($1, but I’m paying for atmosphere), I could roughly make out three halved beef balls floating about, a sizable portion of real cow meat slices, and a few spring onions. As you can see near my helmet, it came with most the fixings: basil (chee krohom), saw tooth leaf (chee parang), halved limes, bean shoots. Good star anise and cinnamon kick in the practically unsalted broth. To top things off, tea was complimentary and the waiter generously left an entire colander full of ice on my table: a completely disproportionate response to my order of a single Tiger lager ($1.25).

Along with the pho (bo only, no ga), Saigon has a fistful of Vietnamese standards on its short menu, and will sear you quail, cockles and beef on their barbecue at the entrance.

Location: Above Vina Store, on the corner of Monivong and St.228.