City: Phnom Penh (BKK1)
Rating: 4 out of 5
Seating: Indoor only
A/C: Yes (-ish)
I have been a bit ill as of late and when I am sick I try to find some relief in my favorite comfort foods. And while this may not be familiar to most, the most comforting food throughout my life has been Korean style Chinese food. Chinese food seems ubiquitous in our lives, but there is a unique version of it just about everywhere you go in this world. Even within China itself, food will differ from region t region. In this manner we Koreans have our own take on Chinese cuisine and I was delighted this week to find a new restaurant in the BKK1 area of Phnom Penh that serves exactly this type of food.
The establishment that I speak of is called Korean Noodle Mong Restaurant. And while the name may suggest a majority of noodle dishes, the truth is that their menu includes many eclectic and varying items that cover the entire gamut of Korean-Chinese cuisine. One of the reasons I enjoyed dining at this place so much was that it was very reminiscent of how this type of food is eaten both in Korea and also just about every Korea Town in every major city of America. While most Korean restaurants will bombard patrons with every free side dish imaginable called "banchan", the matter is kept much simpler in Korean-Chinese restaurants. Traditionally they will bring out two items; a bowl of pickled yellow daikon radishes and a bowl of raw onions with a side of black bean sauce.
I realize this combination sounds quite odd to most, but I assure every reader that the items are quite tasty, especially the latter when doused with rice wine vinegar and dipped in the black bean sauce. They got this part of the meal dead solid perfect as they brought out these two items before the ordered meal. It was as tasty as I had just described, but I did not eat too much as I had ordered quite a bit for a sitting of one person.
The first thing I ordered was a traditional appetizer in these types of restaurants called "goon-man-du." These are basically deep fried dumplings that are filled with some sort of minced meat (usually pork), scallions, other vegetables and sometimes with tofu. I was not quite sure about the last ingredient as I could not taste it prominently. But then again tofu is not really supposed to taste like anything, rather absorbing the flavors of the ingredients around it. Regardless the order was crispy, light and hearty all at the same time.
The next ordered item was the entree and is basically the star of any meal at a Korean-Chinese restaurant. The item is called "tang-soo-yook" and is basically our version of Sweet and Sour Pork. Many are probably quite familiar with this dish as it is a staple in most Western style Chinese restaurants. What most do not know though is that the main ingredient in the sauce that gives this dish that pungent flavor is ketchup. Even the authentic Chinese version, "tang-cu-li-ji" has a sauce that is flavored with ketchup. The Korean version is quite similar except this one ingredient is omitted and the sauce takes on a much more sticky and sweet texture. The sweetness of the dish is cut with a traditional sauce that consists of a 2:1 mixture of soy sauce and rice wine vinegar. This dish is easily the most popular one in these establishments as there is usually at least one plate on every table.
The reason for why this dish is so popular is easily discernible once the first bite is taken. Thin strips of pork is covered in flour and then double fried to give it a very crispy texture. The sauce is rich with flavors from many different fruits and vegetables including pineapples, carrots and onions. There are other restaurants in Phnom Penh that serve this dish but they all lack one key ingredient in the sauce that I and many others from Korean and America are very used to. That ingredient is the wood ear mushroom, which is a very unusual form of fungi that has a slippery exterior but almost a meat like heartiness to it when bitten into. I will not often say this, but if this dish had no meat and just consisted of this mushroom with the sauce I could still eat that all day. Therefore I was very glad to see that the dish served at Mong did indeed have these mushrooms in a sauce that was very authentic and made true to its proper ingredients.
As much as I enjoyed my dining experience at Mong, and I liked it so much that I came back two days later, I ended up giving it 4 out of 5 stars for two reasons. Firstly the menu is very expensive. Save one noodle dish that can be had for $5, nearly every item on the menu was at least $15 and some far more than that. The meal I ordered myself was $21 with the dumplings being $5, the sweet and sour pork $15 and $1 for rice. And regarding the rice, I was somewhat annoyed that I was charged $1 for a little serving of it in a bowl that would easily go for $0.25 in most restaurants in Cambodia, if not for free. Considering how much they charge for the other items, it seemed a bit greedy to charge the $1 for one bowl of rice. And given the price range of the restaurant one would expect a premier feel and atmosphere to the space of the restaurant itself. But unfortunately they kept the air conditioners off on what was a very hot day, even when patrons were eating inside. For these two sins I had to knock off a point, even though I wanted to give it a higher score given how much I enjoyed the food. In fact, I have to admit that my visits in the future will be somewhat limited by these two factors, especially the pricing.
But still I thoroughly enjoyed my dining experience at Mong and when it came to the food it really was second to none. For those who are unfamiliar with this cuisine, or already know it and are in love with it, Mong is definitely worth your patronage.
Cambodian Food Scene
Cambodia is surprisingly filled with many great restaurants, from inexpensive to those closer to Western prices. These are just a collection of my favorite places to eat throughout the country.