Phnom Penh: Capital of Cambodia and Great Oakland Eatery

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Cambodian food rarely comes to mind, but on the occasions where I can’t decide what to eat, Phnom Penh always seems to satisfy my palette. The original Phnom Penh opened in the mid-1980’s by the Do Family and is located in an old brick building in Oakland Chinatown. About twenty years later they opened their second restaurant in the Laurel District. It wasn’t until I read their website did I learn that their family survived the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Since the second Phnom Penh opened, it became my preference as it appeared nicer and location and parking was friendlier. On a recent visit to Phnom Penh with my sister and friend, we discovered that it was closed for renovations. Still wanting Cambodian food, we drove over to the original restaurant.

I am the type of person that doesn’t like to be disappointed so when I know what I like, I tend to go back to what I know.

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The appetizer of choice is always “noum om beng” which is a Cambodian crepe stuffed with pork, shrimp, coconut, bean sprout, served with their special sauce. On the side is fresh lettuce and cucumbers. It is a great starter.

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The soup that I love is “samlaw mach hour,” a brothy soup cooked with prawns, fish, pineapple, tomatoes, lemon and sauces. This provides such an interesting combination of flavors that work very well together.

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The entree that is my must have is “traop ann neun sach chhrouk,” eggplant grilled and stuffed with shrimp and pork. The texture and flavors are unique and delicious. This dish just melts in my mouth.

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The sweet basil fried rice with shrimp is only a recent discovery for me. It’s hard to go back to white rice when you have something so good. I would consider just eating this dish alone. It’s that good.

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This recent visit brought us thinking completely outside the box as we tried another new item, the crunchy string beans which are sautéed with braised tofu, mint and a touch of chili sauce. This was also a very tasty dish, good for the vegetarian.

It’s difficult to write about Phnom Penh and not think about the tasty food they serve. Guess I shouldn’t wait too long before my next visit.

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Evvia: The Best Restaurant in Palo Alto

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Rumor has it that the best restaurant in Palo Alto is a Greek Restaurant in Downtown. It’s name is Evvia. I was in Palo Alto with my colleague last week attending a conference hosted by Stanford University. We were looking for a place to dine so I texted a friend of mine that lives in Palo Alto. As I waited for her to respond, I also went to yelp.com. It was clear we had to go to Evvia and when my friend returned my text, it reconfirmed that we had to try to get in. With the help of Open Table, I got a 8:30pm reservation. My colleague and I decided to attempt a walk-in around 6pm. The host offered us two seats at the bar if we wanted. We were happy with that option. John took care of several of us at the bar while still serving as bartender for the rest of the Evvia.

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We started with a half bottle of Chianti. It was really cute as the bottle was like it had just gotten chopped in half, short and stumpy. It was actually quite good. John gave us some bread to start with an amazing olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette. We shared an appetizer of Biselosalata which are English peas with feta cheese, cilantro, green onions, lemon, and olive oil. I was surprised by it because I didn’t expect something cold, but it was good.

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I had noticed rotisserie chicken turning in their oven when I had walked in. The menu described Kotopoulo as lemon-oregano rotisserie chicken with roasted spring onions and Evvia potatoes and that was what I ordered. It was tender and flavorful. The white meat was very juicy, cooked to perfection. It reminded me a lot of the chicken from Zuni. Mmmmm….

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My colleague ordered the Makaronia me Arni, which was braised lamb Ragu, roasted tomatoes, Greek olives, and tagliatelle pasta which she enjoyed very much. I had a small taste. The pasta was very light which made the lamb the featured part of the dish. I normally don’t like lamb, but thought the chunks of lamb were quite nice. Two gentlemen next to us both ordered the mesquite grilled lamb chops and I swear that when I go back to Evvia, that will be waiting for me. Just looking at it made my mouth water.

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We were quite full, but John convinced us to order the Galaktoboureko which is a traditional phyllo wrapped vanilla bean semolina custard with pistachio ice cream. But before dessert came out, John gave us each a complimentary glass of dessert wine. It was a Tokaji which he described was similar to a Sauternes. He even instructed us on how to drink it. He wanted to make sure we didn’t drink it all before the dessert came out. After eating a bite of dessert, we should have a sip before the flavor of the dessert completely leaves you. My colleague and I used his technique and this last course was amazing and words cannot do it justice.

Evvia definitely scored high in my book and I would agree that it is the best restaurant in Palo Alto!  Did I mention John is awesome?

For those that don’t know it, Evvia has a sister restaurant in San Francisco called Kokkari Estiatorio.

A Little Piece of Thailand

There is a Thai Buddhist Temple tucked in the City of Fremont that my sister-in-law frequents. Wat Buddhanusorn means “temple for the dedication of the buddha” and opened in 1983. It was built to promote Thai culture and art. Visits to the temple usually means Thai BBQ pork with sticky rice for me. This food is simply amazing and I have been wanting to visit myself for a long time. Last Sunday I had the opportunity to go to the temple and see the origin of this food.

As we drove through the parking lot, it was a reminder of my trip to Thailand a few years ago. Buddhism is really important to Thai people and you can tell when you see the ornate details of the buildings. There are monks inside the temple that many people come to visit.

Outside of the temple is a food haven. Thai vendors are cooking up their specialties. I watched as they grilled up meats, blended papaya salad, and cooked up fresh pad thai. Most of the foods cost about $6. You have to first exchange cash for silver coins that you would use to buy foods. We ended up with a few orders of bbq chicken, bbq pork, papaya salad, and pad thai. Everything was delicious, although the papaya salad was a bit too spicy for me. Reminding me of the street food in Thailand, Wat Buddhanusorn is really worth the visit.

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Merritt Restaurant & Bakery: Another Oakland Tradition

Merritt Restaurant & Bakery has been around for about sixty years. Most people that know it just call it “Merritt Bakery,” even though it is more than a bakery. They offer lottery ticket sales, all sorts of bakery items, homemade ice cream, a “to go” counter offering up their famous fried chicken, and finally old school style diner options in their restaurant.

I haven’t eaten at the restaurant since my college days when groups of us would go for late night chow after “clubbing” in the City. At the time, it was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Today it is open until 10pm on weekdays and midnight on weekends.

These days when I have an urge, I normally pick up items from the bakery and the “to go” counter.

They call it world famous fried chicken. I do think they fry up some great tasting fried chicken. If you are willing to wait 15 or 20 minutes you can ask for your chicken to be made to order. Fresh from the hot oil, you won’t be disappointed. The crust is crispy and the meat is tender and juicy. The chicken doesn’t have any spice to it, so I just add some of their packaged hot sauce and it is all good.

Merritt Bakery has had some troubles staying afloat in recent years. It did obtain a loan from the City of Oakland and there was controversy whether they really applied for the loan or went straight to former Mayor Dellums. Also, how could they obtain a $150k loan when the restaurant already owed $800k. Regardless of the controversy, I think Oaklanders are happy to have Merritt Bakery around, I know I am.

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Got Lop Cheong?

For the first two years of my life, I lived on Powell Street in San Francisco Chinatown.  San Francisco Chinatown is the oldest and largest Chinatown in North America.  When my family moved to Oakland, we still spent a significant amount of time there.  We would go there at least once a week so my mother could go grocery shopping.  I remember waiting outside of storefronts with pink plastic bags in both hands.  Even though many of the stores sold the same items, my mother would look for the freshest products with the best deals.

Stores and restaurants in Chinatown come and go, but one shop that still exists today is Wycen Foods Inc.  This shop located uphill on Jackson Street is where my family gets our “lop cheong” or Chinese sausage.  I would never buy packages of lop cheong that doesn’t have the Wycen name on it.  As a kid, I was very happy to eat the flavorful dried pork sausage with rice.  Wycen makes and sells the best cured meats.  In addition to pork sausages, they sell other items such as Chinese bacon, cured chicken, and jerky.  I’m lucky because my grandmother will occasionally buy me a bag of lop cheong, which can be stored in the refrigerator and last a long time. Every now and then I get the urge to have lop cheong.  I would take one out of the fridge and cook it up and eat it with rice or ramen.