You're a long way from Matzalan
I’m not American, which you can tell by the fact that I eat burgers with a knife and fork (frankly, the concept of having to unhinge your jaw in order to put food in your mouth seems freakish and bizarre), have an almost disturbing neurosis about “proper” spelling, and get very twitchy when someone asks for recommendations about Mexican food.
I grew up in Ireland, during the 80s, when exotic ingredients such as chillies, avocadoes and limes grew somewhere far beyond the realms of our starched imaginations. Beans came in tins and were called Heinz. We had no idea they could have other names, and our first experience of “Mexican” food was probably at TGI Fridays in Covent Garden, London – which is really not a great start.
Many years later, I’m still unclear on the distinction between Mexican and Tex-Mex, while Americans on the other hand seem to apply a near fiendish obsessiveness to their assessments of whether or not the food before them is 1) one or the other; 2) sufficiently authentic, and 3) sufficiently insanely more delicious than next door’s. It’s an obsession worthy of great respect in my view. Blessed by ignorance, I on the other hand have no clue about what’s what and what’s real. I do know what tastes good though.
Tucked away in northwest Cambodia, Siem Reap is a surprising gourmand’s melting pot. You can find French, Thai, Italian, Korean, Spanish, Chinese, German, Swiss, English (yes, it’s true), Indian, Norwegian, Vietnamese, Belgian (ha, ha! Just kidding), Burmese, errrr Cambodian (!), and yes, even Mexican food here all within bun-fighting range of each other. Yet, for some reason, the Mexican seems the most incongruous of the crop and not just because the first place to set up here, Viva, is such an unsettling shade of orange.
It’s also really good. Viva has two outlets, on Pub Street and beside Old Market. The Old Market one has more or less tripled its floor space in the last year, without having any apparent impact on diner density. While the decor is pretty tacky, and the service can be patchy, it’s always busy, and for good reason. You’ll find the full range of offerings here, from nachos to burritos, chimichangas, enchiladas, tostadas, tortillas, quesadillas, fajitas, costillas and dozens more dishes besides, and they’re tasty, quick, reasonably cheap and the beers are cheaper. It’s open all day and pretty tough to beat.
On the other side of the river though, you’ll find El Camino which offers a completely different experience. This beautifully designed bar, modelled on a classic American car, is super-cool, but in an easy to handle, understated way. It also offers a short menu of beautifully prepared Mexican dishes. Their chips and salsa are freshly fried, crunchy, salty and served with an excellent, spicy, salsa. The menu is short but carefully prepared, and includes real treats like a rack of chipotle barbecue ribs. It might be a little more expensive than Viva, but the ingredients seem to be better and, in fairness, a beef taco is only $3.
El Camino has specials on Tuesdays and Sunday nights, with $2 tacos, margaritas and bottles of Corona on Taco Tuesday and $0.75 ribs and wings on Si Si Senor Sunday. And if darts is your thing, then there’s also an open darts night on Thursdays.
But while I know that both these places are good because in their own unique ways they taste really, really good, I’m still terrified of recommending them in case I’ve muddled up my Mex and my Tex-Mex and called a burrito a chico or some such. Ignorance is not always bliss, so go gently on me if it turns out they’re not even Mexican or Tex-Mexican but closer to Swedish.
Corner Old Market
T: (077) 478 633
T: (092) 207 842
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.
Our top 10 places to eat and drink around Siem Reap