“Are you sure you want the combination noodle soup?” asked our waiter, eyebrows arching. “It has everything in it—heart, liver, meat...”
He nodded as we reassured him that that was the very reason we wanted to try it, but still-skeptical smile seemed to say “well, I warned them,” as he continued taking our order.
The joy of visiting a restaurant like New Phnom Penh is having the chance to experience new flavors and textures. As long as you go in willing to argue for that right, you’ll be setting yourself up for a meal that gets to the heart of why we explore new places (and restaurants).
That combination noodle soup turned out to be one of the menu’s many highlights. Its clear, chicken-based broth had a distinctly earthy, organ-y aroma and flavor, with thin-sliced pig heart and liver, more aromatically subdued pork and shaved fish cake floating throughout. Bracing greens provided punch while a slippery knot of noodles, glassine and tender, anchored.
Beef and beef-ball noodle soup was more familiar, its delicate slices of meat and fluffy (if vaguely industrial) meatballs floating in a sweeter broth limned with a gentle, fish-saucy funk. Both bowls came with a side plate of sprouts, stems of fresh basil and lime wedges, components that, no matter how much was added, thankfully never dominated the true focal flavors.
Seafood fried with large noodles was remarkable for the density of the broad, flat pasta as well as the teeth-sticking texture of the thick sauce, nutty and sweet. If only there had been more shrimp and less crab stick, this would have been one of the best Asian noodle dishes I’ve had this year.
Seafood with ginger leaned a touch too heavily on sliced fish cake, but the overall impression of the preparation, like the noodle one, was an overwhelming sense of deliciousness. In this case, success rested on the unexpected yellow curry perfume, its intimation of spiciness rolling across the tongue.
A different, more feminine perfume permeated the chicken with lemongrass. But here, too, as with so much of New Phnom Penh’s food, the primary flavor was not the only one that counted. The kitchen here turns out intricately, subtly layered food, and often when you think you’ve understood a dish, another supporting flavor or texture comes to the fore. In a way, those bowls of soup are a decent metaphor for much of the menu, with new treats always popping to the surface. As for the chicken, just when the lemongrass seemed to have reached its peak expression on the palate, a deep salinity in the exquisitely moist meat shot through, rendering it impossible to fight the urge for another bite.
For all its complexity, however, this is disarmingly straightforward food at its core, bursting with honest, well-developed flavors and buttressed by a complete lack of pretense. Start with an order of fried bread sticks with a texture like the hypothetical offspring of a baguette and a churro, crispy crust hiding an interior light and lacy as a doily. Wash them down with coconut water, slippery-sweet petals of coconut at the bottom of the glass, or a durian shake, the notoriously stinky fruit’s hint of spoiled cheese and morning breath balanced with a coconutty sweetness.
Just don’t fall into the trap of heading to the 2300 block of South Seventh Street and ordering the General Tso’s in an unfamiliar-menu panic. You can get many standard dishes here, sure—but why would you want to?
New Phonm Penh
2301 S. Seventh St.
Cuisine: Cambodian comfort.
Hours: Daily: 10am-7pm.
Prices: Eat till you’re sick for around $10 a person.
Atmosphere: Very much a basic, neighborhood spot, but comfortable and clean.
Service: Friendly, with minor language barriers here and there.
Food: Popping with flavor and personality.
Dinner with Luke Palladino