Jganh Jong Ngop: Mexican Tacos
I have a deep appreciation for diverse culinary traditions, although I must admit that, apart from Khmer cuisine, nothing entices me more when I'm exploring a new city or country than Mexican food, particularly tacos. During my formative years in western Washington, spanning a quarter-century, I had minimal exposure to this flavorful fare. My earliest encounters were limited to American chains like Taco Bell, Del Taco, and Chipotle, just to name a few. Unfortunately, I didn't have the privilege of Mexican friends to enlighten me either. As a novice in this realm, it wasn't until I settled in the Long Beach, California area from 2011 to 2013 that my knowledge and fondness for Mexican cuisine blossomed.
According to TripAdvisor, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, boasts a minimum of 20 restaurants serving Mexican food, all of which are locally owned establishments, though the American giant Taco Bell will soon join their ranks. Out of this expanding list, I have had the pleasure of dining at 10 of these establishments. Naturally, I have developed my own opinions regarding the best tacos, the most affordable options, the most authentic experiences, and those with exceptional service. In the following paragraphs, I will highlight three of my personal favorites based on these criteria.
Bay Area Tacos
No. #4D Street 450 / Tuol Tom Poung
This intimate restaurant, with seating for a cozy 12 patrons, is managed by the husband-and-wife duo, Long and Linh. Long, a Khmer American (can you guess where?), has been serving up delicious tortilla-wrapped tacos since 2016. Renowned for their fresh pico de gallo and the fiery Battambang Blaze sauce, Long and I go way back to his years working for an NGO and his photography endeavors, dating as far back as 2005. Little did I know that he was also a skilled cook. And let me tell you, he excels at it. In the past, Bay Area Tacos used to be my go-to spot every week, especially on $1 Taco Fridays. Although the price has since increased to $2 per taco, the portions have grown larger. Nevertheless, I still frequent this establishment, particularly when American visitors arrive in town. What better way to make them feel at home than by treating them to a familiar cuisine at the place renowned as the "Best Tacos in Town"? Bay Area Tacos also deserve recognition for their exceptional hospitality.
No 23 Street 11, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Listing this restaurant among my top three might cost me some credibility, but who cares? This is my list, after all! I say this because true Mexican cuisine enthusiasts may argue that Viva falls under the category of Tex Mex, a derivative of Mexican food popularized in the southwestern United States, encompassing states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Southern California. However, I have developed a profound affection for their crispy hard-shell tacos! Moreover, their all-day taco specials are priced at a mere $1.50 each, with their pulled chicken filling reigning as my personal favorite. Accompanied by an ice-cold $1 draft beer (or any other item from their extensive menu), you can indulge and savor your meal while gazing out at the riverfront during the evening hours. Viva unquestionably holds the distinction of offering the "Most Affordable Tacos." Note: The Phnom Penh branch is close, but Siem Reap is still operational
No. #29 Street 228 / BKK1
For those more seasoned in the city's evolving food scene, the legendary Cantina near FCC was likely their initial introduction to Mexican cuisine, albeit of mediocre quality. My own introduction occurred around the late 2005 period when I had already spent three years residing in the capital. Similar to many American expatriates and aspiring journalists (including myself), I frequented the establishment for its budget-friendly tacos and as a venue to engage in discussions about the day's newspaper headlines.
It seems fitting, then, that my reacquaintance with Mexican food in the capital would take place at a place called Mexicano. Situated in the popular BKK1 area, this establishment is co-owned by Mario Galan, who also serves as the head chef at Puerto Vallarta. Among the twenty or so Mexican restaurants in town, Mexicano rightfully claims the title of being the "Most Authentic" in Phnom Penh. Galan insists on directly importing all his herbs and spices, including epazote (referred to as "Mexican tea"), avocado leaves, dried chilies, and spices such as achiote—a pre-Hispanic Mexican spice—straight from Mexico. However, authenticity comes at a price. Mexicano stands as one of the more expensive Mexican eateries in town, with main dishes ranging from $7 for el pollo (chicken) tacos to $17 for beef fajitas.