This 10th street restaurant, Crystal Thai-Cambodian Cuisine, has a menu way more confusing than the neighborhood in which it sits, mainly because it doesn't really reflect what the restaurant is offering that day. In 2011, I was able to nibble around the edges of some delicious vertebrae-looking hunks of spiny eel, but in 2015, when I ask for the eel, my waiter simply laughs and says nobody ever ordered it, so it's gone. The appetizer spring rolls - called 'appetizers' even though they're tree-trunk sized - are similarly ephemeral, blinking into and out of existence based on the whims of the kitchen. Soups come out with whatever vegetables happen to be around, no matter what the menu descriptions say, and a lot of different curries get written down on the waitress' pad as simply 'panang'. There's no brown rice, probably because who eats brown rice in Southeast Asia?
Of course, the only restaurants that can get away with putting up this many obstacles are restaurants whose food is good enough to be worth it, and here Crystal is no exception. Anything lemongrassy is dry-rubbed with a dusky sauce that, upon closer inspection, looks full of tiny, delicious little tree branches. My favorite is the chha kroeung, with either frog or fish. The frog - its whole body chopped roughly, not just its legs, can be a little overcooked, but I forgive it for the simple joy of popping its half-chicken, half-fish textured flesh off the smooth bones, and for the tiny-tree-branch-coated long beans everywhere. Eaten alone, it's uncomfortably spicy, but with rice, you only cry a little.
One of the many things the waitress writes down as 'panang' is the special fish curry, which has meaty, thick-cut steaks of bony fish marinating in a deep yellow, creamy, unexpectedly fiery sauce. Fillet these fish with your chopsticks before beginning to eat, or you'll spend the meal spitting out bones, and here, unlike in most of Southeast Asia, it is not polite to simply spit them into a pile on the floor next to you. There is also the tamarind leaves soup, which has hunks of floating fish fat, clouds of soft, silky leaves and stalks, and salty explosions of fermented shrimp, plus, of course, whatever vegetables the chefs feels like throwing in there. In fact, any soup you order will be epic, a veritable bucket of mystery leaves, hunks of bone-in, fat-attached meat, and three different kinds of eggplants.
Enjoy your dinner with their complementary tea, but a warning: it is much, MUCH more caffeinated than it looks or tastes. I've spent more than one night wide awake, thinking I'm having a panic attack, but really I've just eaten dinner at Crystal and drunk too many pots of tea.
While it's never difficult to get a seat at Crystal, especially at night, Phnom Penh Noodle Shack at Cherry and 17th keeps the stubborn hours of 6AM to 3PM, and so gets absolutely swamped around lunchtime (I've never been there at opening time to see if anyone's jonesing hard for noodle bowls at the crack of dawn). They have but one bench, and the rest of the sidewalk is a solid mass of salivating people.
Once you get in, you'll want just one thing: the namesake #1: Phnom Penh Noodle. I won't restrict you too much in my recommendation, though: you get to choose your noodle type (rice, egg, teardrop, 'Mama'), and whether you want it 'wet' (broth-in) or 'dry' (broth-on-side). For my tastes, I like it dry and with teardrop noodles, though they'll usually try and convince me that teardrop noodles need to soak in broth. Nonsense, I say (from my seat of cultural misunderstanding)! Their chewy texture when dry reminds me of those wheaty, robust Western Chinese noodles that usually show up accompanied by mutton. Here, in Phnom Penh style, they come with meat from all parts of the pig, including the liver and stomach, plus shrimp, plus a whole bunch of herbs. Despite the fact that the organ meat/herb combo leaves the soup tasting very strong already, the waiter might come around and pointedly remind you that, you know, there's SAUCES on the table for you to use, hint hint.
This bowl of intense pleasure and the tenderest stomach you'll ever taste runs $4 for a kids size, which is too large for me to finish. Also, they have no qualms serving a 30 year old a kids size bowl of noodles.
If you have time for only two restaurants when exploring Cambodia Town, I have no second thoughts in recommending these two; however, I have some honorable mentions to, well, mention:
- Amok Trey at Siem Reap: this fish-curry-served-in-a-coconut dish would be emblematic of the tropics if Cambodia was the sort of place we thought of when we thought of the tropics. It's incredibly nuanced, with fish soft as butter and a cool greenish foam of spices bursting from the lip of the fresh coconut.
- Coconut shake at Cyclo Noodles: layers and layers of coconut and cream, as well as a guaranteed laxative, but totally worth it.
- Banh mi at Baguette Paris: OK, I'm not if this shop is technically Cambodian, because everything is written in Vietnamese, and the owner speaks a million languages, but it's smack in the middle of Cambodia Town and its paté reeks of anchovies, in a good way.