The ultimate skewer of barbecued beef? Perhaps.
Around five in the afternoon charcoal smoke begins to rise from dozens of grills, scenting the air all over Siem Reap. Cambodians love a barbecue, it seems -- there's an entire street devoted to restaurants serving up charred protein (chicken, beef, offal, seafood), sides and beer. Locals call it "Khmer Pub Street", after Pub Street, an infamous downtown strip of dance clubs and bars in which young foreign travellers pass their evenings.
A couple evenings ago we dipped our toe into the local BBQ scene at a corner joint on the non-Pub Street side of the river. Picture it: a middle-aged woman seated on a stool behind a long low grill crowded with skewers of red meat. A packed house every single night, from five-thirty onward. An intoxicating scent -- smoky, sweet, meaty -- that begins to tickle your nose when you're still half a block away.
The meat on those skewers is local beef and beef liver, marinated in beef stock and perhaps Cambodian palm sugar. The strips of beef are alternated with bits of pork fat to keep the meat moist, and both it and the liver are skewered in such a way that they form waves along the wooden stick rather than lying flat. The result, for the beef at least (we passed on the liver) is that while some parts of the meat become black and charred and crispy-crusty, others cook no further than medium or medium-rare. Each piece of beef is a bit like a bite of a thick char-grilled steak, a mix of textures and donenesses. It's brilliant.
That's not all. After the skewers come off the grill they're annointed with a mixture of (I'm guessing here) soy sauce and with palm sugar -- a little salt, a little sweet (and I do mean "a little" -- palm sugar isn't as sweet as cane sugar), a little extra smoky caramel flavor to further play up the sweet smokiness the grill gives the meat.
For liver lovers only
All well and delicious, but what truly qualifies this barbecued beef as The Bomb is its accompaniment: a sweet-sour pickle-salad of thick cucumber slices, finely shredded green papaya and ginger. There's all kinds of ways to eat the two together, but we like to mix a spoonful of fresh red chili sauce in with our salad-pickle and alternate mouthfuls: smoky-meaty, tangy-sweet-spicy. Another option: snag a mini baguette hot off the grill -- be sure to wave off the smear of rank margarine -- and stuff it with meat and pickle for the ultimate grilled beef sandwich.
This isn't the only BBQ beef skewer place in town, but it's certainly one of the busiest. Already heaving at five, it was still doing the business on our first visit around 7:30. Go early; unlike the full-service barbecue restaurants these places tend to close up shop by 9 or so.
Beef (and beef liver) skewers, a ten-minute walk from Psar Chas / Old Market: cross the bridge in front of the market and veer right (south) at the circle, past the Hip Hop Club. It's on your left, a corner place directly opposite the sign for the Golden Banana Guest House and Boutique Resort (which, by the way, is a great place to stay). To see the place on a google map go here. Order skewers in multiples of 5. On our first visit 15 skewers (beef), 5 or 6 plates of pickle-salad and two orders of bread cost us less than U$5. On our next visit 2 pickles and 5 skewers (no bread) cost 5,000 riel.