The nice thing about being in Phnom Penh is that there is a good selection of restaurants featuring most of the East Asian countries. Today the debate was between Korean or Chinese food. I opted for the latter.
Again, I set out beyond the beaten path of tourists to find a place that was truly local: Yi Xian Restaurant Snack World (N° 669, Preah Monivong, Phnom Penh, Cambodia Tel: 855-23 428 318. Fax: 855-23 428 318) seemed promising.
It's fairly large as far as Phnom Penh eateries go, and I did not see any Westerners there. The wait staff did not speak any English, nor did I expect them to. As I do not speak either Chinese or Khmer, I was prepared to face some minor communication challenges. That however, is part of the the adventure, right? We want to experience different cultures on their own terms and not ours.
The menu was written in both English and Chinese, though, so the only challenge remaining was to decide what to order.
Friends who frequent Yi Xian strongly recommended that I try the deep-friend soft shell crab. Those of you who have been keeping up with my eating adventures while here in Phnom Penh know my feelings about the disappointing fried fish I ate at Warung Bali. While slightly hesitant, I decided to trust my friends' judgment, as they, too, enjoy high-quality food.(I still don't know how I feel about the term "foodie," so I try to avoid using it.)
In fact, Gabby told me that she gave her husband, Frank, a cooking class for his birthday. He had a one-on-one three-hour cooking class with the executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston. (I didn't even know that taking such a class was possible. This is something to investigate upon returning to Boston!) This is a digression, I know. The point is that I know that Gabby and Frank would not steer me wrong when it comes to good food.
So I bravely did my best to communicate what I wanted to the waitress. I had written down the Chinese word for "fried crab" and tried my best to pronounce it in such as way that the woman could understand me. Pretty soon, I had three people standing over me, trying to figure out what the hell I was trying to order. I pointed to a photograph of Dungeness crab and then put my thumb and forefinger close together to indicate that I wanted the small ones. Smiles broke out among the waiters. We had victory!
Now I had to decide on accompanying dishes from the extensive menu that features Schihuan, Shanghai and Cantonese dishes. While I was deciding, the waitress poured a cup of tea for me and placed sweet and crunchy Cambodia peanuts, sliced raw garlic and red chilis on the table.
In addition to the crab (about $2.00 for one) I ordered dried, stir-fried green beans ($2.00) served in a brown sauce. I initially wanted rice, but changed my mind and decided on noodles with scallion oil ($1.50).
The food arrived in a somewhat haphazard manner, with the string beans arriving first. Served in a brown sauce that featured soy sauce (with cornstarch as a thickener) and--I think --some kind of stock, the green beans were stir-fried perfectly. They maintained their crunch yet were still tender and flavorful with garlic accents.
A few minutes later the deep-fried soft shell crab appeared, served on a bed of red chilis.
The crab was soft (but not mushy) on the inside and just crisp enough on the outside. And I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that it was not greasy at all. This is proof positive that fried food can be made well. It took another 10 minutes or so for the noodles to make their appearance. I had some misgivings about ordering the noodles, but the scallion oil was more of a light sauce than a greasy topping. The portion was large and they were simple, yet satisfying.
I decided that I wanted more than garlic accents from the green beans and began to eat the raw garlic slices. As garlic lover, I was delighted (although I am uncertain about whether my next appointment agreed.)
If you're focused on decor, furniture, and ambience, then Yi Xian is not the right place. But if you're laser-focused on simple, yet flavorful food served in decent -sized portions, then you will enjoy Yi Xian.