Update: This Kim Penh Xe Lua location is now closed.
This was a first for me: actually ordering food, taking a bite then refusing to pay and leaving immediately. Yes, believe it or not, this hole in the wall was that disgustingly awful. Wendy and I had seen the grand opening sign for this Vietnamese/Cambodian restaurant on Kingsway well before it debuted and I was looking forward to introducing her to traditional Khmer dishes like luc lac beef and amok fish, and all within easy reach for us rather than having to trek all the way to Chinatown to the always wonderful Phnom Penh restaurant (best Viet/Cambodian cuisine this side of the namesake city).
Sadly, it was not to be. When we arrived for lunch the sign promised “All fine Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes”. No truth to any of that. First of all the chef and waitress appeared to be Chinese, speaking to each other in Mandarin the entire time. Sure, could be Chinese/Viet mixed race, but seems unlikely after the rest of our experience. Secondly, when I looked over the menu it appeared to be a typical pho house trying to cater to non-Viet diners with “beginner” and “adventurous” sections. I didn’t see any Cambodian dishes I recognized, so I thought perhaps it was Viet food with a slight Cambodian twist since there is a large Vietnamese population in Cambodia. So I asked the waitress about this. She spoke easily understandable English, albeit with an accent, but didn’t recognize the word Cambodian. Full disclosure: she told us it was her third day, so a bit of slack should definitely be cut. The one positive thing I can say is that she was polite although she was obviously nervous the moment we came in despite our being very friendly at first. Even to the point of giving us an escalating series of multiple choices for our water. Don’t ask.
The warning flags were up. When Wendy clarified what I meant by pointing at the “fine Vietnamese & Cambodian…” heading on the front of the menu (Wendy: It’s in the name of the restaurant for god’s sakes…), she said she would ask the chef. He said no, the dishes weren’t Cambodian influenced. I was confused, so I asked which were the Cambodian dishes. Again, she left and came back (the chef was leaning out of the window between kitchen and restaurant to talk which wasn’t far from our table so Wendy understood some of the convos), this time just telling me “Yes, there’s elements of Vietnamese and Cambodian”. Hmm, helpful…
So I ordered the “Phnom Penh Rice Noodle Dry Soup” since that seemed to be the only Cambodian dish on the menu (after another browse of the menu now that I’m back home I see there are three dishes that APPEAR to be Cambodian style Vietnamese, all ‘ko’ dishes, which are soups). Wendy wanted a house special but was having trouble finding it listed and inquired about it. The waitress pointed to the heading of the menu and said, “Oh, yeah we have it it’s right there!” You can see what I mean here:
So Wendy ordered that with extra cilantro as she usually does when we go for pho and our waitress indicated this was no problem. Her meal arrived promptly, but no cilantro AT ALL, just a few sad chunks of green onion with the meat. Wendy asked if it was coming and the waitress put her index finger to her lips, looked to the ceiling, tapped her finger mumbling “cilantro, cilantro, cilantro…”, and asked, “you’re talking about the green leafy stuff right?”. Wendy said, “yeeesss….”, and she apologized and came back with…..
No extra of anything here
At this point Wendy was a bit frustrated and I can’t say I blame her. “Cilantro. Ci-lan-tro. This isn’t it.” So the waitress proceeded to repeat it slowly and told us she would ask the chef what it was. Why not ask what it was before bringing the food? Especially since we wanted “extra” of it? Or clarifying with us first? Three days into the job or not, this was getting to be a bit much. She came back with, “sorry we don’t have that.” Ok, we give up. WTF tho, a pho place that doesn’t have cilantro? It was becoming increasingly clear that this was a sub-par Chinese outfit that realized there is already a glut of AMAZING Chinese restaurants in the area so decided to do a cheap knock-off of a more exotic cuisine to attract marks. Also note the flat rice-noodle, same as what came in my noodle dish, and definitely not what one would expect when ordering house special pho. I understand that that’s a bit of a contradiction when speaking of a “house special” but normally it’s uniform in every restaurant; house special just stands for rare and well done beef, tendon, tripe, brisket and balls.
Here is an article about this style of soup from Viet World Kitchen. What I was served here bears no resemblance. Wrong noodle, wrong broth, missing the main garnishes that differentiate this from other similar dishes. I stirred in the dollop of greyish brown sauce from the top and took in a mouthful of the flat rice noodle. Half was quite uncooked and chewy. The greyish sauce tasted to be salted gelatin or corn starch. No other flavour. I had a sip of the broth. Over-salted (WAY over-salted), over-sugared, and over-cloved. I inquired about Wendy’s broth (it was the only thing she managed to get a taste of before we left) and she had the same one. I bit into a prawn. And immediately spit it out. Luke warm and absolutely rank. An extremely foul taste, it was definitely spoiled. I don’t know why I did this, I feel like a bit of an a-hole now, but I had Wendy take a little taste: “Taste this, it’s ROTTEN!” And she doesn’t know why, but she tasted it! And yes it had gone bad That was it, I stood up and yelled out, “This is rotten! This stuff has gone bad, and even if it hadn’t, it’s just plain bad food! We’re not eating it, and we’re definitely not paying for it!”. And that was it. I made a point not to swallow my saliva after biting into the prawn and rushed across the street to grab mouthwash at 7-11 and try to kill any bacteria…and rid myself of the awful aftertaste. Even having done that I’ve been bathroom-bound half the evening Thankfully Wendy wasn’t hit by it.
Well we couldn’t just go hungry and Wendy had her heart set on pho so I suggested Vina in the Metrotown food court, an old haunt of both of ours and at least you know what you’re getting there. As we drove down Kingsway we noticed the lunch specials at Chongqing and the pics on the sign diverted our attention. We had Peking duck there recently and were really impressed by the place so decided to do round 2. Plenty to choose from on the specials menu, all for $8.45 each and most include rice. All items include a choice of chicken corn chowder or hot & sour soup.
We chose the hot and sour and it was pretty damn good, can’t even begin to list all the yummy goodness they had thrown into the pot. You also get the obligatory complimentary tea, but here we had a delicious lychee flavoured number that is some of the best tea I’ve ever tasted! We had it both times we were there so hopefully that’s their usual MO.
I had Diced Chicken in Chili, Sour & Garlic Sauce with Spinach and Rice. At first I told Wendy it wasn’t that spicy, but several full minutes in my mouth started to tingle with an extremely comforting heat (confession: I’m a major spice-head). Not overpowering but I appreciated the slow-burn creeper aspect. The bed of spinach soaked up the sauce perfectly and plenty of garlic in that so I was fully satisfied. One thing I didn’t detect much of was the “sour”, but I didn’t care since that’s one taste sense I’m not nuts over.
Wendy had the Tan-Tan Noodle with Pork Chop. It was in a soup style as opposed to the sauce style I was familiar with, Wendy liked it just as much as the sauce version. Big portion and not as spicy as it looked. She observed a lack of garnish but the flavour of the broth was enough to satisfy her. Still could have used just a smidgen more of a kick. The pork chop was perfectly tender and the batter was seductively spiced, salted and sweetened. No problems there! We left full and with lifted spirits. We will definitely be back…lots!
NOTE–After writing this I googled around and it turns out Kim Penh Xe Lua used to be located on Broadway & Cambie and was 24 hrs so attained some marginal popularity. I didn’t recognize the name but now I remember passing it by and making a mental note to pop in sometime but never got the chance. However from reading the old reviews on Yelp apparently they had quite the hygiene problem, generally dirty plus some even saw mice and rats etc. So again, don’t be fooled…this place is a complete dive!
UPDATE: looks like about a month after we visited the Health Authority had some serious issues with them. I stumbled across this today: