Malis Mam stands barely 5 feet, and seems to always have on white cooks' clothes -- not a chef's coat -- but the kind of clothes a baker's apprentice often wears: white pants or jeans, a white shirt and a white hat. The dining room of her restaurant, Phnom Penh, is rarely crowded, making it easy to hear her bustling around in the kitchen.
Nal Yun, her husband, loyally guards the front room, waiting on tables and serving customers.
Phnom Penh originally opened as Beef Stix in 2007, and the sign out front still bears that name. A self-taught cook, Mam opened her version of the restaurant to get out of the real estate business. But it closed somewhat abruptly last year, putting Cambodian food followers into a bit of a tizzy. Mam explains that the building was vandalized by fire last October, and it took until after the new year for everything to be fixed.
If there is another Cambodian restaurant in the area, I'm not aware of it, and Mam's cooking bears the mark of this wholesome cuisine's lure. It proffers much influence from Thailand and Vietnam, even China, but Cambodian food marches to its own drummer when it comes to heat and seduction, leaning more toward hardy than heated. Think of it as the comfort food of Southeast Asia. Mam was inspired by a trip to her homeland in 2006 — the first since she left the battered country in 1979. She stayed for two months, learning to cook.
Her best dish is a specialty called baan chav, a crepe made with rice flour and sweet coconut milk with turmeric, which turns the batter -- and subsequent pancake -- very yellow. There is an almost unidentifiable flavor to its sweetness; the coconut milk deceives your taste buds into thinking she might have laced the batter with a hint of cinnamon. Or is it nutmeg? Allspice? It is none of these; just Mam's deft hand and a mixture that stops just this side of too sweet, filled with the offsetting savory tastes of ground chicken and shrimp and bean sprouts. Yun will insist you dip it into Khmer-style lime sauce (similar to Vietnamese nuoc cham or nam, but with darkly roasted peanuts, and a bit sweeter).
Sweetness is a factor in much of the Cambodian dishes Mam cooks, and the menu leans heavily toward foods and ingredients reminiscent of Thai and Vietnamese cooking, but with a homier, less exotic flair. A perfect example is red curry over flat noodles, where coconut milk and broth meet chicken, sliced carrots, sweet yams, onions and red bell peppers, but with very little heat from the specks of chilies floating throughout. Spoiler: The starchy yams tend to absorb the sauce, making them covetous table material not likely to be shared.
Nhaom moan will remind you of the meat salads from Thailand, most obviously larb, with minced chicken and scallions to be wrapped in lettuce leaves and dipped into lime sauce. Beef salad is perhaps the spiciest dish served, and very similar to a Thai nua nam tok — spicy beef strips are tossed with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and mint leaves.
Lemongrass provides a ballast of flavor in many Cambodian dishes, especially samlor (also samla), or soup. Seasoned with a Cambodian-style curry called Khmer kroeung (the flavor of which may be what most distinguishes this cuisine from its Southeast Asian neighbors), Phnom Penh's lemongrass soup is a broth freshly scented with lemongrass and scallions included as part of the meal, or ordered in a larger version from the menu.
Sodas and sweet iced tea with lime are the only available drinks, save water, but you won't miss a cocktail. (A light, Asian-style beer like Singha would go nicely with this food, though.) A huge, framed picture of Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat monument seems to smile down on the dining room, almost as a blessing.
Yet Phnom Penh's simple food is sanction enough.
Phnom Penh Restaurant, 4059 Lawrenceville Highway, Tucker, 770-688-8902
Food: Cambodian and Southeast Asian
Service: Friendly and prompt
Price range: $ - $$
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Hours of operation: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Best dishes: Lemongrass soup, baan chav (crepe), red curry over noodles, beef salad, nhaom moan
Vegetarian selections: Many dishes are vegetarian or can be made vegetarian
Parking: Adjacent lot
Reservations: Not needed
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Low
Address, telephone: 4059 Lawrenceville Highway, Tucker, 770-688-8902
Web site: None
Pricing code: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 and less; $$$ means $50 and less; $$ means $25 and less; $ means $15 and less. The price code represents a typical full-course meal for one excluding drinks.
Key to AJC ratings
Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.
A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit and miss.
Food is more miss than hit.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.
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