On the corner of Streets 154 and 51 is one of the best value diners in Phnom Penh, the Tinat Restaurant. The Tinat isn’t included in any guidebook, a blessing in disguise, and the hard working Khmer-Chinese owners do nicely anyway, thanks very much.
It’s not on any list of places you want to be, there are no Michelin chefs, no fancy décor, and no frills. Lonely Planet has never heard of it, which may serve to help save its charm. That’s not to say there aren’t wandering backpackers their noses buried in guidebooks oblivious to what’s actually going around them seeking a gastronomic treat in the capital of the Kingdom of Wonder.
Staying just down the road near the glorious Central Market in the comfortable and very affordable Happiness Guest House, my mate, his girlfriend, and I would regularly wander down for an evening meal dodging the traffic on Street 51 as we went.
Initially, we weren’t even sure the restaurant had a name. We would call it the Khmer restaurant, because it was owned by Khmers and most of the customers were locals too. “See you at the Khmer restaurant at six” we’d say.
Only when we noticed the yellow awning later were we aware it was actually called the Tinat Restaurant. But it wasn’t a name that resonated with us so my mate, Kiwi Paul, took to calling it the "Peanut Restaurant”.
The corner of Streets 51 (Rue Pasteur) and 154 can be a busy intersection, especially after 5pm. I never cease to wonder at the buzz of activity going on around me. I can pass the time just watching and often do. In Cambodia, the mundane can be fascinating, even photogenic. Traffic comes along Street 154 in both directions. In theory traffic on 51 is one-way, but like much in Cambodia things can happen differently.
At that intersection outside the Tinat they merge in a motorised form of the Barnes Dance: tour buses, trucks, giant SUVs, tuk tuks and hundreds of motorbikes (or step through scooters). There are no traffic controls or it seems any road rules. Everyone just slows down, weaving, dodging, often stopping and heads off again - eventually.
Along 51 from the hotel are book shops, travel agents, gold merchants, a couple of boutique shops, and other eateries. Outside shops the footpaths are rented out after dusk to food stalls, which serve food every evening just for a few hours and are then gone by midnight and during the hours of daylight.
Tinat Restaurant has been owned by a family of Chinese Khmers for about five years. Early in 2012 it mysteriously closed for a few days. There was a sign on the lamp post outside. The post has so many thick black electricity cables and dodgy wiring running from it, one shuddered every time it rained, least those in the vicinity be electrocuted.
Not reading Khmer we were left seeking our meals elsewhere. A few days later it reopened. The two brothers Long and Hy, appropriately named as they are tall, were back their heads freshly shaved. Their mother had died, so they had been to the province for the funeral rites, the ritual number one a markof respect. Business was quickly back in full swing. The clientele are mainly Khmers. Many of the expats are regulars. Some are teachers from the New World Institute English language school opposite. The male teachers distinguished by the requirement to wear a neck tie.
The Tinat is cheap, with most meals costing US$2-3 each. The cheapest item on the menu is US$1.50 and the dearest US$5. Angkor beer is US$1 a bottle and soft drinks 75 cents. Tea is complementary, so if you don’t order a drink they bring you a pot of hot tea in a battered silver pot. Cutlery is delivered in a plastic cup in boiling water.
There is a plastic tray on each table with the usual collection of sauces, and a plastic waste bin under each table. There is seating inside, or, my preference, outside under the awning, which is both useful against the blistering sun, and in the wet season, when it can rain with such ferocity the water hits the road before rebounding half-a-metre up from whence it came.
When I first started eating there, the tiled floor was littered with discarded tissues. Customers seemed to drop them everywhere except in the waste baskets. But now the floor is almost entirely devoid of litter, as if some unwritten command went out and everyone knew not to drop used items of the ground.
About 18 months ago, when I was out of the country, the owners decided to renovate. One of the teachers told me they closed the restaurant for only one day. When they reopened the next day the entire inside had been retiled in gleamingwhite. Glossy, laminated colour prints of all items on the menulined the walls. There were larger refrigerators, and the dishwashing area had been relocated.
The restaurant opens at 5am. Every morning on my way to work I’d pass Tinat about 8am, and it was packed. Tinat closes about 11am, and is open every day.
There is a strict hierarchy amongst the staff. Usually the men give you the menu, a heavy folder, like a photo album listing all the dishes displayed in colour photos, two per page. The menu runs to 24 pages. The drinks are on the inside cover, all displayed in colour miniatures.
There are a variety of vegetarian and meat dishes: pork, beef and chicken also available with sweet and sour. As well as omelettes, soups, some a kindof porridge, mushrooms both black and white which comes with slices of garlic. There’s seafood: crab, squid, shrimp, deep fried fish balls and grilled fish. My favourite is whole fish with a mango spicy mango salad side dish. And for the more adventurous there are fried pickle and intestine, and frog legs in a stew.
The service is about one beer; that is order a beer and before you’ve finished the food has arrived. The female staff bring the food. Once upon a time, the staff wore their own clothes, now they are uniformed; pink polo shirts for the women and green for the men.
When you pay the bill “get loi” or “som get loi” in Khmer, Long or Hy are summoned and arrive carrying a great wad of cash, Cambodian reils and US dollars. The bill is given in riels. So a whole fish, a mango salad, and one beer is 19,000 riels or US4.75. The bill is tallied by the shape of the plate, and in the case of drinks, the number of coasters, which works as a record of consumption. These days the brothers are wired for sound, the staff havingheadsets to save time.
On busy days the motorbikes line the footpath. One staff is kept busy moving all the bikes onto their centre stands and manoeuvring them as close together as possible to save space. When the customer leaves the whole process works in reverse. On hot days pieces of cardboard are placed over theseats, so riders won’t burn their backsides.
The kitchen is a hive of activity. It’s located under an awning on Street 51, so it’s actually on the street. Cooking is with bottled gas, the burners firing giant woks. Whatever they do in there works. The food is well prepared and tasty. I’ve never gotten sick eating there and neither has anyone else I know.
The staff knows the regulars, where you sit, what you order. When you get to the end of the menu you go back and try everything all over again.
One young waitress never smiled. In the hottest weather she wore tight jeans, gloves and socks. She must walk miles every day. One day I gave her a tip, and her face broke into a broad smile. Every time I’ve seen her since, even if I’m just walking by, she gives me that same smile
I asked Long how business was going. “Good”, he said, “We’re going to open 24 hours”.
“After you’ve been down there” he said, pointing down Street 51 past the old central police station site, now a collection of shops, and there’s a kind of market and beer halls and the popular late night spots of Heart of Darkness and Pontoon, “you can come and eat here.”
So if you get the munchies after a night on the tiles, or get hungry any other time, the Tinat is always open for business.