Kick back with a cocktail and enjoy livin’ la vida expat at Mexican-Japanese eatery Salsa Cabana Buena. Writing by Joanna Mayhew. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
At first glance, Salsa Cabana Buena seems a bit confused. But the casual Latin-Oriental eatery’s charm is in its quirks, with off-kilter decorations, a beachside vibe, and tasty dishes and cocktails that go easy on the wallet.
The Japanese-headed curbside bar and restaurant is the fourth outlet of the chain, started in 1995, and the first in Cambodia, following three branches based in Tokyo. Run in the Kingdom by a Japanese chef and manager, Salsa Cabana Buena specialises in Tex-Mex basics. The menu ranges from standard offerings, such as burritos ($4) and fajitas ($7.50), to more eclectic tapas offerings, taking in Cambodian Ajillo ($4) and papaya and coriander salad ($3).
Starting off, the nachos ($3), loaded with cheese, jalapenos and tomatoes, looked standard – and perhaps slightly off-putting in the pinkish hue of the cheese sauce – but the healthy portion of jalapenos was welcome, and the homemade tortilla chips were a pleasant surprise: perfectly salted, light and crispy.
The large serving of Mexican deep-fried chicken ($6.50) was served with fluffy rice, black beans and more tortilla chips. Despite the name, the appetising dish seemed Chinese-influenced, with the tender and well-coated chicken pieces tossed in a fire-red hot sauce reminiscent of a spicy sweet-and-sour stir fry. For the brave, an even hotter orange-hued sauce is served alongside, packing serious punch.
To round out the meal, the light but filling taco plate ($4 at lunch), served with soup and salad, offered pulled chicken and spiced ground beef alongside pico de gallo and a tangy chilli packed with kidney beans, ground beef and melted cheese. When deconstructed, each piece felt a bit out of place, but – similar to the restaurant itself – when piled into the flour tortilla, the elements worked well together, blending to offer a flavourful, if not amazing, taco.
The newly glassed-in, cosy restaurant seats just 24, with rattan-backed chairs, dark wood tables and low-hanging black lights swaying alongside fans. The worn white walls are embellished only by a pastel-coloured mural covering a back wall, and plastic cut-out banners featuring guitars, chickens and sombreros.
The eatery’s laid-back atmosphere stems from the weathered wood flooring and panelling for the space’s main feature – the bar. Half situated outside, the inviting wooden perch is decorated with cacti, bulb lights and a drawing of Beavis, from Beavis and Butt-head.
Like the food, the cocktails come cheap – with beer on tap ($1), original, mango and pineapple mojitos ($3), and a range of spirits with mixers ($2). The margaritas ($3) are made using tequila and whiskey, a possible shout-out to Japan. While not too sweet, they can be weak, so ask for a heavy-handed pour.
With rainy season underway, the tucked-away bar is the perfect escape from Phnom Penh’s soggy streets. And with Salsa Cabana Buena’s trusty dishes, after-work drinks can happily roll into dinner.