I am a huge fan of Thai food and I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Cambodian cuisine as I’ve never even seen a Cambodian restaurant in the United States. As it turns out, it’s incredible and by the time I left the capital city I found myself wondering how it wasn’t as widespread as Thai and Chinese dishes. Honestly, signature dishes like the Lok Lak and Amok Chicken are still to this day some of the best Asian food I have ever had anywhere, easily beating out my favorite Thai plates.
Even better was the street food! Just as the sun sets the walking streets of downtown, commonly referred to as Pub Street area, were jam packed with better food cart options than Bangkok and at even better prices. Below is a guide to gluttony on the cheap in a town that could just as easily be praised for its food scene as the ancient temples.
Lilypop Restaurant: Stumbled upon this place the first night in the city and after reading the few reviews I could find online (it’s very new) gave it a shot. Turns out it’s one of the best places to eat in the city and has quite a reputation with the locals as well. Don’t expect ambiance or A/C as it’s an 8 table joint operating out of a very small building but the food more than makes up for it. The owner/operators are a French expat and his Cambodian wife and together they serve up some unforgettable dishes. You MUST get the Lok Lak and Amok Chicken here, go for the King size with extra meat and a fried egg to top the rice. I tried both dishes (staples of Cambodian cuisine) at many places and Lilypop won by a mile. Everything is cooked fresh to order and I don’t think they have a dish on the menu that costs over $3 USD! Be prepared to wait if the place is full but come off peak hours and you’ll probably be the only one there.
Other Cambodian Cuisine Restaurant Options: While there are indeed hundreds of sit down joints in the city they can be very hit or miss, particularly if you’re on a backpacker budget. Don’t worry about finding a place as the hosts are incredibly aggressive and active, typically out on the street trying to usher passerby inside. I even tried a few other places with good reviews but was simply never satisfied. If you’re only there for a few days in my honest opinion you cannot go wrong having dinner at Lilypop every night. I know this is a crazy recommendation but trust me, it’s that good. They have plenty to choose from and the value there is simply incredible. I don’t think you could pay double or triple and get the same dish made better elsewhere. Just my two cents though!
Non-Cambodian Cuisine Restaurant Options: Siem Reap’s dining options are truthfully shaped entirely by the influx of foreign tourists so if you’re craving some food from back home fear not! I was so in love with the local options that I never felt the urge but if you want a hamburger, pizza, fish and chips, tacos, etc just walk to Pub Street where you will find a couple dozen places to choose from. A warning, the prices are steep at these places so expect to pay essentially what you would back home. Another downside, from what I read in online reviews and confirmed with random customers as they left, quality is often quite disappointing. That being said if you want to mix it up with other travelers Pub Street is still the place to go without a doubt, just drown your sorrows with a pint or two of beer and swap travel stories.
Street Food…Deliciousness for a Dollar
Crepes/Pancakes/Roti: You’ll find the street carts here have not yet agreed on what name for the aforementioned styles of fried pancakes but that’s probably because they ar
e too buys perfecting their recipes. Unbelievably tasty and cooked to perfection, I have never had better Roti style and the Crepes rival that of my favorite crepe stand on Koh Tao in Thailand. This is a place where they aren’t stingy with toppings and have a wide variety to choose from.
My favorite custom combo is peanut butter/nutella/milo powder, it makes my stomach growl just thinking about it. You can get one of these fried rolls of goodness for right at $1 USD at any cart in town, simply heaven.
“Fried” aka Freeze Dried Ice Cream: Not sure where the name “fried ice cream” came about from, perhaps they thought freeze dried was a bit too confusing. Although this is a technique you might have seen in the US or Europe, the Cambodians have added their own special touch and the result is unreal. For $1-2 USD depending on toppings you get a bowl of fresh ice cream in about three minutes time. They’ll hack up whatever fruits and candy you choose and blend it with the cream. Then it’s spread and frozen into a thin sheet on a cold plate using CO2 gas and rolled up into beautiful cylinders when finished. I’ve only seen this technique in one other destination throughout Southeast Asia so if you make it to Siem Reap don’t miss out!
Fruit Shakes/Smoothies: After having a million delicious shakes in Thailand I was excited to see what Cambodia had to offer…turns out I was quite disappointed. I tried to get a one each day and always tried a new place but never once was satisfied, not even at our favorite restaurant Lilypop! I suppose nowhere is perfect and if I had to critique the food scene here for one thing it would be this. The style here is to add artificial sweetener and milk with not enough actual fruit. The result is a drink that separates almost instantly after blending into a foamy mess at the top of your cup and a bottom full of a strange liquid with a hint of fruity taste. I would forgo this option during your stay!
Fried Insects/Critters: A disgusting by must have part of anyone’s trip to Southeast Asia is fried spider or two. If you’ve been holding out, take the plunge in Siem Reap as they truthfully cook them for flavor here and not just novelty. Tarantula, cockroach, scorpion, snake, gecko, beetle, etc. you can pretty much take your pick. You will even see locals snacking on them, a sign that this cuisine has evolved past novelty-which is always a plus. There’s even BUGS RESTAURANT, where all the dishes are infused with your favourite creepy crawly friends!