Eating into the west

By Calvin Godfrey, TN News

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The entire staff of the Mlis Toul Tompoung BBQ celebrating payday. Photo by Calvin Godfrey

Food epiphanies - those revelatory meals that once lifted me up and blew me over in Saigon daily - feel fewer and farther between these days.
It was for these and other reasons that I went west, toward the food frontier of Phnom Penh without much of a plan.
When I landed at my guest house, I found myself in a cloudless city seemingly free of humidity or rain, one where cool breezes tickled the laundry hanging from valleys of old stately apartments and tousled the brilliant mops of the flowering trees that shaded the wide sidewalks.
An army of sly sunburn men stood guard on every corner offering to deliver me in a comfortable wooden caravan to wherever I wanted to go.
But where was that, exactly?
Few things are more depressing than a poorly planned weekend escape - a nose dive into the exotic that ends in something like Phnom Penh's notorious riverfront: a hive of ice cream parlors pickled old perverts, narcotic pizzerias and hotel canteens that specialize in pork chops grilled to a sweet jerky and served over white rice.
After a full day of grilled pork and durian ice cream my body begged me to find something else.
One longtime local recommended that I go see a street cook from Ca Mau who sold a papaya salad across from the Sketcher's store. The thick armed chef grumbled about the French giving Vietnam the Delta while he pounded fermented crabs, chilis, pea pods and tart strips of papaya together in a mortar.
After scouring the Internet, I set course for a chicken joint called Barn Barn's.
My crosstown ride began at sundown when traffic in front of the Royal Palace jammed to the consistency of a Saigon Sunday before opening into a helmetless flow as cool and easy as the air blowing off the Tonle Sap.
Everything seemed set for Barn Barn's until we encountered a Fiat-sized trench that had been carved down the length of street 254 by men who now sat dozing in their backhoes.

The delectable Bok l'hong (papaya salad) served across the street from the Sketcher's store. Photo by Calvin Godfrey

My dutiful tuk tuk driver spent the next hour earnestly zig-zagging through the wreckage, up side streets and over stacks of drain pipes for any sign of chicken.
But Barn Barn's had vanished.
He seemed more exasperated than I did. To make him feel better, I disembarked and handed him US$5 - a decision I regretted as he drove off leaving me in the dark desolation of a residential construction site.
Dogs and old ladies eyed me with suspicion as I scooted along the narrow walkway, wondering where I'd end up.
Half a block later, the staff of the Mlis Toul Tompoung Barbeque stepped into the street and invited me into a bright room walled by bright red Ankor Beer signs.
While I perused a menu written entirely in Khmer, the Maitre D dispatched a junior employee to conduct a full house-to-house search for any sign of Barn Barn's.
We decided soon after his departure that I should stay for dinner and he would design my meal.
The first course was a steak that looked as though it had been apprehended by a secret police force and tortured for vital information and then handed to a grinning child to grill over charcoal just for me.
Splashed with a little chili sauce it came to life like a beautiful Frankenstein - tender and elegant in its bloody disarray. To sweeten this affect, a bucket of ice and 8 percent ABC Extra Stout appeared at my elbow.
 
+ Bok l'hong (Papaya Salad) Cart
- Across from No. 46 Sihanouk Blvd, Tonle Basak, Phnom Penh
- Open in afternoons
+ Mlis Toul Tompoung BBQ
- 20 Street 454 Sangkat Toul Tum Poung, Phnom Penh
- Open from 4 p.m.-10 p.m.
After half a can, I'd decided that the thick, malty kick in the pants should be handed out all over the greater Mekong sub-region during the Lunar New Year.
The second course was more meat: thick slabs of charred pork belly deified by salt and chili.
"We call it 'bacon'," said the owner, a banker named Monycheat as he sat down at my table seemingly to watch me eat.
But bacon was an understatement. Mathematically speaking, it was bacon cubed.
All of the customers had left, but the room was kept warm by his entire staff who had gathered at a long table to feast like Catholics on Christmas.
"It's payday," Monycheat said.
Dessert was more meat and beer, which I finished just as the exhausted scout returned to announce that Barn Barn had moved.
When I couldn't possibly swallow another morsel or drop, Monycheat drove me through the city past monolithic convention centers and apartments slated for demolition.
I didn't make much more culinary headway in the capital due, in part, to a carnivorous hangover.
But I felt I'd eaten enough of the town's hospitality.

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