The perennial winner of "Best South East Asian Restaurant" awards, Phnom Penh in the heart of Chinatown has had diners lined up.
It starts with the Huynh family. Nam Trieu Humpkik, a Chinese born chef who immigrated to Phnom Penh and opened a restaurant and then a noodle bar and became something of a celebrity chef. His restaurants were filled with local cooking students trying to learn his exacting techniques in the kitchen.
All that was shattered when the Khmer Rouge took power and in 1975, and the family was forced to flee and take refuge in Vietnam. Living as refugees in another war-torn country was hardly the settled life they had hoped to live.
But after four years of hardship, something miraculous happened.
The oldest daughter of the family, a kind but tenacious woman named Solange, was working in Vietnam as an interpreter. Her uncle's wife, trying to get authorization to join her husband in Canada, asked Solange to accompany her to her immigration interview. At the end Solange asked the immigration officer how long it would take for her aunt to be able to sponsor her family. The officer asked how many people in her family and asked her to draw her family tree. The officer gave her a stack of papers and told her to bring her family and the completed forms back tomorrow. Solange Huynh recalled the surreal events that happened afterward. "(The next day), he just looked at the papers, stamped them and said 'Alright.' We left with no paperwork, no anything. I thought he had just been playing a trick on us.”
Then the miracle happened. Two months afterward, the Huynh’s got a phone call from the embassy saying that their visas were waiting for them. Her parents, mother Van Hoa and father Sieu had no money at all, but they made it to Canada and never looked back.
In 1982 they scraped together a small bit of money and opened a noodle booth in the Vietnam-Chinese Community Services Association of BC on East Georgia St, just down the road from the current Phnom Penh. They cooked the food they remembered from their childhoods for friends, neighbours and people who were looking to taste something that reminded them of the homes they had been forced to leave.
They were shut down 3 years into the venture for failing to fill out the right paper work. So they hustled like crazy, used every last penny that they had and a year later opened a tiny noodle shop, right beside their current location. After 3 more years they were busy enough to move next door to a space many, many times the size. “My father always said that if you worked hard enough you could start a new life anywhere, and we did. We worked so hard, we worked so hard back then. But we did it,” Solange says a little wistfully.
She frowns a bit as she talks of not seeing her kids when they were young, of working seven days a week and being unsure of their financial stability. Now she sees her daughter Jessica nearly every day as they both work in the restaurant. Her son works in another restaurant kitchen. He’s learning other cooking techniques and she hopes his work will pay off by becoming the chef at their own restaurant someday. “In 10 years maybe, maybe then, we retire. Maybe then the kids can take over,” she tells me, grinning slyly. For now it’s still the older generation's gig.
Solange's parents have long since retired but they still come in regularly to check on things. Van Hoa is the matriarch of the family and despite not working there anymore, she is still very much the boss. The day to day duties are looked after by the children. Solange works behind the scenes at Phnom Penh, although she will occasionally pitch in at the front with customers. Her sister Ellen runs the front-of-house with brother François. Solange's other sister Kathy works in the kitchen with her husband Peter, who is the head chef.
It was Peter, with a background in Japanese food that came up with the recipe for their famous chicken wings. They are fried in the lightest, thinnest batter possible, tossed in sautéed garlic, green onions, and ginger then served with a sauce containing a hint of lemon and what I suspect is five-spice powder. They are extraordinary.
Solange can’t remember exactly when they were added to the menu but they have been making them for about 15 years. These days, nearly every table that comes in orders them. I ask her if she’s sick of eating and talking about them by now. She grins and tells me she still finds herself back in the kitchen every couple of days, asking the cooks to make her a few wings to snack on. They are that good.
Surprisingly, though, her favourite dish on the menu is the oyster cake. It is a thin pancake made from yam starch that’s filled with oysters and green onions. They are pan fried to perfection then topped with a spicy fish sauce. Every day when the cooks come in they make oyster cakes for breakfast as a staff meal. It’s one of her grandfather’s recipes.
The most amazing thing about our conversation is that no matter what I ask and no matter what we talk about, everything she says ends up being about her family. Her family makes the food, serves the drinks and runs the business. They decide everything together and she tells me that while they do have the odd fight, they never stay mad for more than an hour.
“It would have been so easy for us to have died in Cambodia, so easy for us to have been squashed like ants. But we made it through. My whole family. Now we don’t fight, we don’t argue. We do everything together.”
It’s that closeness that makes Phnom Penh such an unforgettable experience. The sense of family permeates the room, making everybody feel like it’s their home.