Stroll into any Southeast Asian eatery and you might be getting a little giddy at the thought of plastic baskets packed with your upcoming sauce session, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get picture menu to guide your eyes to what you want to eat as well as empty tins of coffee, condensed milk and vegetables that double-up as wall decor.
Imagine the delight when you roll up to a garage roller door only to be sweet-talked in by the smell of food cooked over charcoal? A classic 1960s Cambodian film is projected on the back wall, rows of industrial-sized Milo tins cover the top shelves as chatter and laughter levels rival the tunes. Indoor plants, mismatched furniture, stacked plastic chairs and communal tables pack out this eatery as you park yourself in front of baskets packed with pickles, wet wipes and fiery-red chopsticks. As you sit down, you're instantly greeted with spiced peanuts and a glass sugar syrup jug topped with cold brew jasmine tea (on the house!) - so where are you, again?
You've just landed in the Kingdom of Rice, a slice of Phnom Penh in the Sydney suburb of Mascot.
Inspired by the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh's market life, this colour-charged pop-up tips its hat to Cambodian street food and hospitality. The six-month collab comes at the hands of Acme’s Mitch Orr alongside front-of-house star and Cambodian descendant Sophia Thach throwing down her flavour gauntlet on the menu that has unfolded.
After moving to Phnom Penh for two years to reconnect with her heritage, Thach tells SBS, "the people are why I love Cambodia so much."
"Growing up, my parents never spoke about where they were from and about their life in Cambodia, which is why I had to go and immerse myself in it all," she says. She worked in Phnom Penh at NGO Friends-International on their vocational training program in restaurants across Southeast Asia and spent any free moment she had travelling and eating around the country.
“Phnom Penh is a real sensory overload with an amazing sense of community and this pop-up is a really great opportunity for us to flex some creative muscle and capture all senses, not just taste,” Orr tells SBS.
While Khmer food does share similarities with its Southeast Asian neighbours, it still has its own vibrant personality. There's plenty of seafood, cooking over charcoal and fresh herbs to go around. While lime and Kampot pepper as well as kreung - a paste made from garlic, lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, ginger and turmeric, used to marinate and stir-fry - are possibly some of the most triumphant combos to highlight the cuisine.
"My run-down Darlinghurst terrace had no room to actually cook in, so I would always grill out the front, friends would roll in and it would always be a good time."
The Kingdom of Rice menu is what Orr calls "a greatest hits" of dishes that both he and Thach loved eating during their time in Phom Penh. "Khmer food is delicious and very underrated," says Thach as she urges those to try and not compare it to its neighbours, but rather take in the dishes "with an open mind and appetite".
Ever since she moved out of home, Thach has missed and reminisced about her mum's cooking and she really enjoys cooking Khmer food herself. "My run-down Darlinghurst terrace had no room to actually cook in, so I would always grill out the front, friends would roll in and it would always be a good time," she tells SBS. Sounds like Kingdom had a dress rehearsal early on.
According to Thach, it's not Cambodian food unless prahok is involved. Sometimes referred to as 'Cambodian cheese' (minus the actual cheese), it's a dip made with fermented fish paste, pork belly and kreung. Svay kchey (green mango, chilli and salt) and trey neet alek (dried fish and watermelon) are all eyebrow-raising snacks that also prove their place on this menu.
From there, the skewers of lemongrass beef, caramelised pork and/or shiitake mushroom accompanied by a pickled green papaya salad and charred baguettes are a part of the build-a-banh-mi sambo.
The mains of cha dtrop (chicken and smoked eggplant stir-fry), bort ling (corn, dried shrimp and garlic chive) both jump for umami joy, while cha le'a samot tdek meric (pippies, lime and Kampot pepper) and slab moan baoek ung (kreung stuffed chicken wings) are all served on plastic plates and speak to Thach's deeper loves.
"Fried chicken wings!" she exclaims with unadulterated glee. "I love KFC and the chicken wings are basically my recipe if I were to ever own a KFC franchise in Cambodia."
The fruits of Southeast Asia smile down on the dessert menu with jek ung (grilled banana, sticky rice and caramel), noum dorng karem (pandan coconut waffle and coconut sorbet) and bobor lapoav (roasted pumpkin, tapioca and coconut milk) already on high rotation. And if you simply couldn't possibly commit down the dessert path then an iced coffee (served with condensed milk, of course!) could be a better compromise.
But the coolest room in the Kingdom has to be the self-service drinks fridge, filled with a mix of Asian and local wines, bubbles and beers, with Angkor Lager repping the Khmer vibe. #dontbeshyjustbehonest
"I love KFC and the chicken wings are basically my recipe if I were to ever own a KFC franchise in Cambodia."
Ignore the chopsticks and go in with your hands (remember the wet wipes, people), be sure to go digging for white gold when you order a fresh coconut as it comes with a straw for slurping and spoon for scooping and keep an eye out as a few unique ingredients might surprise you on the menu in the coming months, "especially if we can get an aunty to fill their suitcase on trips back from Cambodia," says Orr.
So roll out the red carpet, this Kingdom's garage hits the lemongrass and Kampot pepper jackpot and all it needs is a Khmer pop playlist and you'd swear you were tucked away somewhere between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Tennyson Hotel, 952 Botany Rd, Mascot, NSW
Wed - Thurs 5.30pm-midnight, Fri midday-3pm, 5.30pm-midnight, Sat 5pm-midnight, Sun midday-3pm, 5.30pm-10pm