Surrounded by new shops and refurbished buildings along Charles de Gaulle Boulevard, Maple Cafe looks old. Its facade is fading. The sign above the entrance, once green, is shading toward gray. Below is a row of neon lights spelling out the name of the restaurant in Chinese characters whose bulbs no longer light up.
A person walking into Maple Cafe & Restaurant at lunchtime might expect to find a couple of waitresses twiddling their thumbs. But this restaurant has stuck around for a reason.
It’s noon and the place is packed. Not a word of Khmer or English is being spoken. Maple Cafe is Taiwanese owned and serves up what amounts to soul food to a loyal clientele heralding from the mainland and surrounding islands. It is the kind of place where Western expatriates talk with their fingers, pointing to words in the menu or at pre-made “fast food” items, which are displayed buffet-style in the back of the dining room.
The menu at Maple Cafe is overwhelming. There are 14 pages of food choices, listed in three languages. The English is often inscrutable, and an order of beef noodle (rice flour) will get you a hearty beef, vegetable and noodle stew.
We ordered the beef noodle along with an order of stewed pork, pig arm maple and an order of fried pork and squid with dried turnip and garlic, which we were told was the most “authentically Taiwanese” item on the menu.
The “fast food” items of stewed pork, pork stuffed tofu (an anomaly in societies where tofu is used to replace meat), and garlic green beans, which arrived served with a hard-boiled egg and boiled greens placed around a mound of rice, came first.
The eggs and pork were both an unsettling shade of deep brown, but I would urge you to give them a chance. The pork had been stewed in a salty and sweet concoction for hours, allowing the broth to become a slightly sticky sauce. The meat was tender and succulent and fell apart between the teeth. The pork was so flavorful that rice was a must and, for what it is worth, the rice at Maple Leaf is perfect. One gets the sense that the kitchen cares deeply about it.
The meat stuffed tofu was juicy and bursting with savory saltiness. The beans were crunchy with enough garlic and salt to make them interesting.
Maple Cafe is an efficient operation. The waitresses are uniformed and friendly and one must not wait long before your food is served. Maple Cafe’s owner, Wang Ya Hui, moved to Phnom Penh with her family from Taiwan in 1993 and inherited the restaurant from her father. The family initially came to Cambodia to launch a garment factory—there is a picture on the restaurant’s wall of Ms. Ya Hui standing with Prime Minister Hun Sen in the mid-1990s, when Ms. Ya Hui said he was courting her family’s investment in the country. But the profit margins became too tight, she explained, and they scaled back their business interests in Cambodia to their restaurant, which has been open since 1998.
Ms. Ya Hui said that marketing has never been an issue for Maple Cafe. “People know about our restaurant and they come here,” she said. It used to attract mostly Taiwanese clients, but she said that the influx of Chinese into the country over the past decade has meant that the lunch crowd these days is made up mostly of mainlanders.
Next up was the pig arm, which was a more fatty and less flavorful take on the stewed pork. The beef noodles, one of Maple Cafe’s most popular dishes according to Ms. Ya Hui, followed.
The soup was far less salty or seasoned than expected. Unlike the Chinese Noodle Restaurant on Monivong—a popular place for many locals—where the broth dominates the other ingredients, this soup was notably led by the beef and vegetables. It reminded me much of stews that derive from cold climates, hearty but slightly bland. Needless to say, I added a bit of soy sauce and quite enjoyed the tender beef (avoiding the occasional piece of unnamable innards) and soft noodles served with greens, potatoes and carrots.
The final dish was the pork and squid with dried turnip. It turned out that the menu had failed to include one of the main ingredients in the dish; tiny salted fish. First, I tasted a piece of turnip. Not bad. Then I really dug in, spearing some squid tentacles and a half dozen minnows, it was, to my palate, overpowering. The clientele at Maple Cafe is enough to make it an authentic experience, let this be a lesson to you.
Maple cafe is not a gourmet eatery, but it doesn’t skimp. The ingredients are good and the prices are reasonable. You may not be blown away by a meal, but you will be satiated. And you can be sure it will still be there if you decide to return.
© 2012 – 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.