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Phnom Penh House, Oakland

Last week I dropped by Phnom Penh in Oakland Chinatown for a solo lunch after an appointment downtown. It's probabaly been at least 10 years since last visiting this Cambodian outpost. This time I was early enough to beat the crowds, and a not a moment too soon as all the tables were full by 11:55am on Thursday.

The downside of being an early arrival is that I didn't get a chance to see what other patrons were eating before ordering my own meal. Interestingly, it seems that more than half the customers were Filipino and the most popular order was what they called "sinigang". On the menu this is actually #13 Samlaw Machhou Phnon Penh, described as "soup cooked with prawn, pineapple, tomao, lemon and sauces". I asked my Cambodian-Chinese server if this had tamarind in it (like sinigang) and he said that it did.

I did less well ordering for myself, picking #44 Kary Bangkea, prawn in spicy green curry, $6.75. This was made with musty tasting green curry powder and lacked both freshness and richness. It had exactly 8 prawns in it, carrots, long beans, and undercooked eggplant. Not recommended.

Green curry -

What do 'hounds recommend here?

Phnom Penh House
Cambodian Food
251 - 8th St.

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  1. I've always liked the #16 -- hot and sour chicken soup. I think that's about it.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      Are you saying that's the only thing you've ordered or the only thing you've liked of the various dishes you've tried?

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        It's the only dish that stands out as something I'd order again. The grilled lemongrass pork is supposed to be good, but I haven't had it in years.

    2. I wandered down there once. I, too, had a curry, and was unimpressed. From where I was seated it was difficult to see what was on the other tables.

      2 Replies
      1. re: merle

        The other popular order seemed to be stir-fried rice noodles that looked very much like pad thai, perhaps a bit more red in tone from more tamarind and mixed with more egg and prawns.

        1. re: merle

          It may just be that you don't like Cambodian-style curry. Have you tried it elsewhere? The curry they serve at Phnom Penh is very similar to the curries I had when I visited Cambodia in the fall. While I enjoy it, it's certainly not my favorite thing that the cuisine has to offer.

          My favorite dish at Phnom Penh is the tofu and string bean dish that they wrote in by hand on the last page of their menu.

        2. My friend & I went for dinner, and asked the waiter to recommend a bunch of things. We went with his recs, and they were all great. What stands out in my mind were the beef crepes - an appetizer that resembled larb, but inside perfect crepes of egg, rice flour, and coconut milk (I'm guessing).

          1. I used to go there all the time back in the late 80's - early 90's when I worked in Oakland. I went back about a year ago and found that the quality of everything I tried had slipped quite a bit from my memory. I always got the bbq chicken and sauteed mixed seafood plate, and both were not up to par compared to previous visits. So it sounds like if I go back I will try some of these other suggestions.

            1. Six and a half years ago I worked in the restaurant dead zone near the Lake Merritt BART station. Phnom Penh was the most popular restaurant at my office, but much of that esteem was due to the fact that it was one of the closest.

              It developed quite a following among my co-workers for the Pad J and the barbecued chicken (I never understood this since the chicken was too fatty for my tastes). I liked the chicken with green beans and mint, but it was still nothing to write home about.

              1. I understand there's a second Oakland location, wonder if that branch is any better.

                Phnom Penh House
                3912 MacArthur Blvd
                Oakland, CA 94619
                (510) 482-8989

                4 Replies
                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Melanie, that's the one I went to! I thought it was great. I haven't been to the 8th st one.

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    I have been here a few times as it is literaly down the street from work. Can't compare to 8th street, never been. But you won't have to worry about a wait at lunch time, never seen it more than half full. It has always been good but not amazing. I do think ordering is key, the curries just seem bland to a palate weened on thai and indian. However soups and grilled meats have been very good. Once I found champa, I returned less frequently.

                    1. re: sfeater

                      Me & my friend made sure to pick from the large number of dishes that the waiter recommended -- you're probably right that the key is ordering, and I'm guessing the quite helpful waitstaff is the key to the key. :)

                    2. re: Melanie Wong

                      I remember reading in the East Bay Express about that location a couple years ago. If I'm not mistaken it's the same food (maybe slightly higher prices) but in a locale with upscale touches (black square plates, walls painted in yellow or orange, etc.)

                    3. i know this is an old post, but i just ate there tonight and it was pretty good. i used to eat here a lot, mostly for dinner. must haves:

                      -grilled eggplant with pork and shrimp (#24): great smoky eggplant flavor and what isn't better with ground pork, hello.
                      -string beans with tofu (on additional page in back of menu): beans are usually crispy and not overdone.
                      -bbq chicken is very delicious.
                      -squid salad is also decent, as is the crepe appetizer.
                      -FRIED BANANAS with vanilla ice cream: always served piping hot, light crispy batter, best eaten in 2 seconds which may be hazardous to the roof of your mouth. outrageously good!

                      give it another go. servers are also very nice. if you like it spicy, say so, as i suspect they hold back a little on the heat in general.
                      really, it's the grilled eggplant and fried bananas that shine brightest for me here. hands down.
                      (the above refers to the Oakland CTown location on 8th St....never been to the other.)

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: crispypork

                        Oooh, the grilled eggplant prep is one of my favorite Cambodian dishes. I'll have to give it a go. Thanks for the post!

                      2. ive been there once and had the red curry duck. not what i expected. it was legs of duck in some 'not so red' curry. the potatoes weren't starchy which made suspect it was a day old or something. i tried the rice noodles, but i prefer pad thai. the fried bananas were good though.

                        i'd say, king of thai has the best red curry duck

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: flogo

                          Which branch of King of Thai do you frequent?

                        2. Had lunch here today - I definitely prefer Battambang. The most glaring problem was that everything was excessively sweet. There have been reports that Battambang's food is blander and sweeter at lunchtime - don't know if that's the case here as well. The most successful dishes were the fish ones.

                          #6 Noum Om Beng (Cambodian crepe stuffed with pork, shrimp, bean curd, bean sprout, coconut) - crepe was tasty but less tender than Battambang's. Filling was underseasoned and had a much higher bean sprout to protein ratio than Battambang.

                          #12 Nhorm Yuhuer (spicy squid salad) - a few pieces of squid scattered on the bottom of the plate, covered in a mound of shredded cabbage. Seasoning was ok, could have been spicier. Squid was tender but didn't taste super fresh (also a problem at Battambang).

                          #14 Sngor Thhrourk (seafood soup with mushroom) - this was ok - strong lemongrass flavor in the broth. Could have been much spicier.

                          #17 Schkor Chha Ktis (beef in peanut sauce) - actually we ordered this with tofu, but I feel justified in reviewing it because the sauce was not good. Tasted like rancid peanuts.

                          #24 Traop Ann Neun Sach Chhrouk - grilled eggplant with pork. Less smoky than Battambang's, good silky texture. But sweet! Very, very sweet. Left a candylike slick in the mouth.

                          #34 Moarn Ann Kreun - barbecued chicken. Again, too sweet, without any acidity to balance it.

                          #39 Hamok Trei - catfish in coconut curry - this was ok. A little too sweet.

                          #40 Trei Chean Kreun - deep fried red snapper - I only had a bite, but this was pretty good.

                          #47 Chhet Chean - deep fried banana with ice cream. This was very good.

                          So, of the dishes I can compare head to head with Battambang, Battambang wins. Of the ones I've only tried here, the seafood soup and the red snapper were the best.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: daveena


                            850 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94607

                            Phnom Penh House
                            251 8th St, Oakland, CA 94607

                            1. re: daveena

                              Thanks for the trial by fire, daveena! Guess I'll forget about PP for now and try harder to give the Cambodian luncheonette drmimi found in Petaluma a try.

                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                Angkor Borei in SF is the best I've found to date.

                              2. re: daveena

                                This is a great list. I also really like the eggplant with ground pork, their version of pad thai, the spicy garlic rice, the charbroiled chicken and/or pork, the fried snapper and the crepe filled with pork and shrimp. I don't like the green beans or other vegetable dishes much.

                              3. Had lunch here today with a large group of coworkers today - I don't have the menu with me, so I don't have the item numbers and Cambodian names.

                                Very good:
                                Soup with prawn, pineapple, catfish - I think this was the #13 mentioned in Melanie's first post.
                                Pork with eggplant - I think it might have been a little less sweet than last time - I really enjoyed it today.
                                Fried bananas with ice cream.

                                Almost good:
                                Squid salad - the squid was much better this time - sweet and tender - the one misstep was the crushed peanuts on top, which were a little rancid.
                                Fried rice with prawns and basil - flavor was good, texture was a little mushy

                                Forgettable - a number of curries, including a vegetarian one, and a beef one. There was also a fish that was fried and had Chinese-ish topping of scallions and ginger that was a little over cooked. Vegetarian duck was most memorable for its freakishly realistic "skin". Barbecued chicken was sweet and dry.

                                1. To the original post, I must say you did not order correctly.
                                  As with most restaurants, one must know what to order to understand the potential of, in this case, the Phnom Penh House.

                                  Since my days of existence as a cluster of cells in my mother's stomach, I have been attending the Phnom Penh house, at least once a month. It is safe to say I have eaten there over one hundred times, and believe I know what to order.
                                  Now, if one finds tastely pleasure in fast restaurants, such as panda express or pf changs, this authentic cambodian food might come as a bit of a surprise.
                                  The asian- cambodian family that owns and works the restaurant brings unseen flavors to this hidden jem in Oakland's china town.

                                  1. Squid Salad - what I believe to be the most perfect blend of sweet, spicy, and sour. Very fresh Calimary.

                                  2. Eggplant Dish - if you choose to order, trust me on this, smell the dish before you take a bite, it has an absolutely delicious smell, it will literally leave your mouth watering.

                                  3. Pad Thai - one of the better pad thais i've tried

                                  4. BBQ chicken- Never had bbq chicken with so much flavor. ( I remember the first time I convinced my babysitter to go there, she tried this chicken and afterwards at the gas station went around the station telling everyone how amazing this chicken was). Makes american BBQ ribs taste artificial. (Or if you like steak, it is also very good)

                                  5. Fried Banana - mouthwatering. The coconut ice cream tastes like vanilla yet goes perfect with the banana, the perfect cherry on top to your visit.

                                  (would recommend staying away from the curries, though, they are not anything special)


                                  Phnom Penh House
                                  251 8th St, Oakland, CA 94607

                                  Phnom Penh Restaurant
                                  3912 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland, CA 94619