Ellie Dyer and photographer Charles Fox try out authentic Mexican cuisine at Alma Cafe.
Head to most Mexican restaurants in Phnom Penh and you’re bound to see cheese-laden tacos, sizzling fajitas and salty-sweet margaritas by the dozen. But take a ride to Alma Cafe near Russian Market and you’ll find a restaurant that is not afraid to defy the crowd.
Each day just two lunch specials grace the eatery’s menu, alongside five set breakfast dishes. Yet fear not, when it comes to authentic Mexican cuisine, Alma is the real deal. Inside its kitchen, a team of Mexican chefs is cooking up a storm, offering the public hearty fare echoing the home-cooked dishes provided by loving mothers throughout the country of 112 million people.
On the day of our visit, the two specials were both stews. The first, a pork version called puerco guisado ($5 including bread and a drink), was one of the best broth-based dishes I’ve ever eaten. The liquid element was light and refreshing, containing a touch of smokiness from the chipotle chillies balanced out by a zingy tomatillo sauce and the sweetness of caramelised red onion. The generous serving contained slices of corn on the cob that burst in the mouth and huge hunks of tender pork shoulder. The meat was masterfully cooked; falling apart with the lightest touch of a spoon. The delicate flavour worked in symbiosis with the broth, taking it to a richer level, but my favourite part was left until last. After slurping down half the bowl, I discovered the chickpeas that had sunk to the bottom, infusing all the interesting flavours of the dish into one. It was simply delicious.
The other special on our trip, frijoles blancos with kale and sausage ($5 including tea or limeade), was also excellent, though not quite as interesting as its predecessor. A thick white bean stew benefitted from bursts of spicy sausage tempered by a mound of white rice. An additional side of cheese-laden folded tortillas meant that the carbohydrate-heavy dish was not for the faint hearted, but it symbolises what Alma does so well: homely, comforting fare.
Alma’s breakfast menu is small and good value, but from my experience remains less adventurous than its specials, which have previously featured chicken crêpes doused with Mexico’s famous mole sauce, a cheesy tortilla soup and marinated chicken thigh in achiote paste. The breakfast huevos rancheros ($4, including juice and coffee) consists of a tortilla topped with two fried eggs, doused in a sauce with a sizeable chilli kick. The addition of refried beans and smoked bacon created a solid, yet simple, meal.
Along with the excellent stew, it’s the flan ($2) that I’ll be coming back for. The dish is one of Alma’s desserts, which also regularly change and are kept in the glass cabinet inside the modest restaurant space. A mound of pleasingly wobbly set custard was topped with a rich caramel sauce and a swirl of solid caramel. The combination of textures, along with a jaw-aching indulgent sweetness, made it a dish to remember.
Alma may not have a lavish interior or grace the most desired street in town, but the food speaks volumes about its quality. The only disappointment I had is that, for the moment, it only opens for breakfast and lunch.