It's downright weird that there isn’t more banh mi to be had in Phnom Penh.
Introduced to Vietnam in the colonial days as French baguettes with a smear of pâté, the sandwiches grew popular with the residents of Saigon who incorporated local flavours and ingredients to create the Vietnamese snack we know today.
The recipe spread through the refugee diaspora following the Vietnam-American war and these days you can get banh mi all over the Western world from New York to Melbourne to London.
Yet here in Cambodia, with Vietnam just next door and a big Vietnamese community, they are practically impossible to find.
It’s not like the ingredients are difficult to obtain here: whack some carrot, pâté, fresh chilli, cucumber, coriander and a few slices of pig in a fresh baguette, sprinkle on a little soy sauce and you’re done.
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s variation on the theme, num pang – typically processed meat, pickled vegetables and an overwhelmingly sweet sauce which has none of its Vietnamese cousin’s freshness and balance of flavours – can be found on practically every street.
There is at least one Vietnamese restaurant that does a half-hearted attempt, but it misses out most of the ingredients and is sadly dry and bland.
Enter Sonoma Hoagies, which was opened by a Vietnamese-American family in December last year in the Street 278 location formerly occupied by their Sonoma Oysters restaurant, which they have moved to larger premises.
Co-owner Tracy Nguyen said her family – which has also had seafood and restaurant businesses in both Vietnam and the US – opened Sonoma Hoagies after being frustrated by the lack of authentic bahn mi in Phnom Penh.
“Over the past four years that we have been here, we have always searched for authentic banh mi to satisfy our craving, but all ended in disappointment,” she said.
“To be honest, we have no idea why [there are not more authentic bahn mi around],” she added.
Nguyen said the family deliberately used the term “hoagie” (an American term for a roll sandwich) instead of banh mi in the name.
“Banh mi to us is limited to Vietnam only and we wanted to give our business an English name for our international expansion in the very near future,” she said. “Not everyone knows what ‘hoagies’ are and we hope it will encourage people’s curiosity.”
A clean little eatery with polished wooden furniture, a reddish brown colour scheme and feature brick walls, Sonoma Hoagies is a quiet, cool place to enjoy a sandwich. The young women who make them are polite but never seem to be in much of a hurry.
All the menu options include the basic bahn mi vegetables and herbs to which you can add grilled pork, meatballs, roast pork, chicken or Khmer pâté – or ask them not to put any meat in for a vegetarian option.
The ingredients are fresh and good quality. The baguettes are baked on site every day and are certainly crunchy enough. The vegetables are crisp, while the grilled pork is similar to what you find in any Phnom Penh pork ‘n’ rice joint and the roast pork is flavoursome. I wasn’t sold on the meatballs – they just didn’t have much flavour – and have yet to taste the Khmer pâté or chicken.
Possibly to keep costs down they may be skimping on the meaty fillings a bit, but at just $2 each, the sandwiches are good value compared to other western sandwich outlets. One is probably enough to satisfy the average appetite at lunchtime.
If I was to be really fussy, I would say Sonoma Hoagies hasn’t quite nailed the recipe yet. The banh mi just doesn’t have the same powerful flavour hit of the best available in Saigon – or even in Melbourne.
But hey, it’s a good sandwich, and if there’s a better bahn mi to be had in Phnom Penh, I’ve yet to eat it.
Sonoma Hoagies can be found at #159 Street 278.Opening hours: 8:30am until 8:30pm.