Writer Matt Surrusco and photographer Enric Català sit down for a “home-cooked” Japanese lunch served up by the familial trio behind Spring Vale.
Japanese restaurants are abundant in Phnom Penh. But if you’re looking for a tasty, reasonably priced midday meal, one Japanese joint to visit is Spring Vale, an airy, family-owned eatery on Street 450.
The lunch spot offers “home-cooked” Japanese dishes served up by a family from Hokkaido, who moved to Cambodia in 2009 and opened the first iteration of Spring Vale about two years later.
The current location opened early last year. Its spacious seating for 32 people, makes it a good place to meet colleagues or friends during your lunch break.
“People always have the same meal every week,” says waitress and cook Kotomoi Yahata. Her parents own Spring Vale and her mother is the head chef.
Seeing regular customers order the same dish begins to “look very boring,” Yahata says. Then, “OK, time to change” the menu and come up with something new, she adds.
Her father, Toshi Yahata, got the idea for one recent menu addition while watching YouTube: Spam onigiri.
A tasty play on a Japanese snack – often coming in the form of a triangular rice treat wrapped in a piece of seaweed with various meat or fish fillings inside – the Spam variety ($1.50 for one piece) consists of a small brick of steamed rice joined to a slab of the salty canned meat by a seaweed wrapper.
If canned pork and sodium nitrate is not your thing, consider the other onigiri on offer: katsuo (bonito flakes mixed with soy sauce), kombu (kelp) or tuna mayo, all for $1 per piece.
Another salty and savoury side, the deep-fried tofu with ginger soy sauce ($2) did what tofu is known to do best: take on the flavour of whatever it’s cooked in.
While a bit too salty, especially after eating half of the piece of Spam, the ginger flavour helped cut through the salt and the two pieces of tofu were pleasantly crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.
The spicy vegetable ramen ($3.50) was solid, with a sizable portion of noodles and Korean chili powder providing a satisfying level of spice: enough to begin clearing one’s sinuses without leaving the tongue tingling.
Some added toppings ($0.50 each), including slices of roast pork with a sprinkling of sesame seeds, boiled egg, seaweed and corn, made the ramen dish a meal in its own right, perfect to re-energize before heading back to the office.
Yahata says the deep-fried chicken set ($4) and oyakodon ($4), a bowl of rice topped with stir-fried chicken, egg and onion, are made in her grandmother’s style, which was passed on to her mother. The Japanese curry ($5) is also her family’s recipe.
Still, the Yahatas try to strike a balance with their menu, catering to both Japanese and other tastes, the daughter says.
“We’re trying to be fair between Japanese customers and other foreign customers,” she says. “And keep the environment for everyone.”