The holy trinity. The beloved Big Three. If you know you know the trifecta. These three dishes from one of Vancouver’s oldest restaurants are world famous with good reason. They are why Chinatown’s Phnom Penh almost always has a line. Great minds think alike.
The Best Chicken Wings In Vancouver?
If you look around the restaurant, nearly every table will have an order. Yes, that’s right, the chicken wings. Number 78. Phnom Penh’s deep fried chicken wings. They are crisp, slightly sweet, and a little peppery. They are also covered in garlic. The aroma is intoxicating. I dare you to order these to go and try to drive with them without tearing into the box en route. They might just be the best chicken wings in the city. The crust creates crunchy crevices, and inside the chicken is juicy and moist. I don’t like to use the word “addictive” about food but I do think the British term “moreish” applies with these wings. You’ll find it difficult to stop eating them long enough to sample what else you’ve ordered.
The Bò Lúc Lắc. Also known as Vietnamese Shaking Beef. The menu describes it as “Perfectly stir-fried tender beef”. It is rich and savoury. The perfectly stir fried beef is covered in a thick and delicious gravy, which comes on rice with a small salad. Order yours with a fried egg on top and mix everything together. The richness of the sauce blends with the egg and covers every grain of rice. Add some fish sauce which comes on the side. The texture of the lettuce and cucumber blends perfectly with the succulent and tender beef.
There’s another beloved beef dish at Phnom Penh, the butter beef. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. Barely cooked, essentially raw, thinly sliced beef is plated beautifully in delicate layers. It is served in a bright, fresh, and juicy marinade, topped with fried garlic and plentiful cilantro. This is a dish that feels like fine dining. Because the beef is so thinly sliced, it cuts easily with a fork and spoon, and then melts in the mouth, leaving the crunch of the garlic and cilantro. My condolences to those of you who are cilantro averse because it is an essential part of the dish. It’s essentially a beef and cilantro salad.
Phnom Penh is More Than the Big Three
The Phnom Penh menu offers so much more with other favourites including the Cambodian style dry egg noodles, the oyster pancake, the fried rice, and the spring rolls. Both the squid ball noodle soup and hot and sour soup are also worth trying.
I must admit, I chose the wrong time to write this article because Phnom Penh is currently closed for the month of March which means I won’t actually be able to eat any of these dishes again for at least another two weeks. Phnom Penh has always been a family business, and the Huynh family takes a team building and research trip back to Asia every year.
Reclaiming Phnom Penh in Canada
The family began their legacy as restauranteurs in Cambodia. Sadly, with the rise of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, the Huynh family had to abandon their restaurant and flee. After immigrating to Canada, Grandma Huynh opened a little noodle booth on E. Georgia Street. Her first customers were family, friends, and other Cambodian and Vietnamese ex-pats. Then, after saving for a few years, the family was able to move into their current space, and then 1986’s Expo brought a boom of business which has continued ever since. Phnom Penh has been open now for almost forty years. When you first enter Phnom Penh you will see a wall of awards and accolades. There are also a few handwritten notes of thanks and praise pinned up. You might catch the autograph of a certain world-travelling food television personality who went by Tony.
The awning out front might be a little tattered, the decor inside might be a little outdated but that’s the way I like it. Phnom Penh is busy all day every day, and since receiving the Bib Gourmand from Michelin, they’ve been busier than ever.
Of course, takeout is always an option but Phnom Penh isn’t on any of the apps. In a closing statement on how loved this restaurant is, I’ve heard customers have driven from as far as Seattle to pick up an order. And I bet they got the wings.