cait +tiff

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C+T / Alma Café

Alma-HeaderOne of the first things we do in a new city is scope out the food scene. For both of us, knowing where to get a decent linguine pesto or chicken tikka is essential to our overall happiness. For some reason, the one thing that is usually missing in SE Asia is good Mexican food. Lucky for us, we have Alma Café.

Alma Café opened in June of 2013 near the Russian Market and has been going strong ever since. In fact, they have been going so strong that they never even had time for a grand opening. On the breezy corner of 454 and 123, the building has bright, high ceilings, and is an ideal spot for chilaquiles, quesadillas, or their standout tres leches cake.

Yessica-and-Aaron-at-the-CounterOwners Yesica and Aaron Hassenboehler came to Phnom Penh a few years ago. Yesica is from Acapulco, and Aaron is a New Orleans native. They met while he was working in Mexico and they have traveled all over the world together for the last ten years. Their travels including a three year stint in Mumbai, where the only Mexican food was in their kitchen.

When Yesica and Aaron arrived here, they wanted to do something good for people in Cambodia. They weren’t interested in providing traditional charity or giving anything away, but instead believe in providing jobs as a way to encourage responsible and sustainable development in Cambodia.Staff

“We believe that it is good to teach [young people]: how to work, how to fish for themselves; so that one day when we leave, it won’t affect them. They would have something to help their families. So that’s why we decided to start the café and give them jobs. And because I’m good at cooking. At least he says I am.” 

Alma Café has managed to build a creative and welcoming community on their little corner. The cafe is often packed with the expat crowd, and even a few local residents. (Locals love the burritos, but aren’t too sure about savory beans yet.) The café also attracts Spanish-speaking patrons from across the globe and regularly hosts events with Latin music and dancing. They are constantly training the staff in new skills and engaging with local NGOs to provide restaurant training and support for disadvantaged youth. The current employees at the café are especially motivated and one of them is even learning how to bake traditional Mexican cakes; a skill we could probably all use.

They are open for breakfast and lunch, and are so busy that other restaurant owners in the area have actually asked them not to open for dinner. The restaurant community in the neighborhood is supportive and as the neighborhood grows, they share the perks, and burden, of being so popular. Most of their publicity comes from TripAdvisor and Facebook, and the fact that everyone is talking about the café, all the time.

Yesica uses recipes from her family, and guards her secrets well. The tamales are steamed in banana leaves, as some grandmothers do in Mexico, and the salsa recipe is her mother’s. 

We have a lot of people who come in and say ‘This salsa is not good, I’m from California and I know.’ And I’m like ‘I’m from Mexico.‘”


It’s a family affair: secret recipe tamales, Yesica and her fabulous brother, Carlos.

The menu changes daily and is dependent on what is in the local market. If there are avocados, its guacamole time! (We love guacamole time.) If there are squash flowers, they go in the quesadillas. A lot of local ingredients work very well in Mexican food, but they struggle to find the right kind of chilies and specialty items. 

These two, along with their fantastic staff, have brought great food and culture to the neighborhood. We highly recommend you stop by and get the specials before they inevitably sell out.  If you are lucky, the Khmer staff will send a “gracias” your on the way out. It’s completely wonderful.

Photos by Tiffany Tsang. Please request permission for use.



C + T / Kettlebell Café

headerKettlebell Café is now open for business (well sort of, they’re still in their soft opening phase)! Located just next to the Crossfit Amatak gym on the corner of 454/123, Kettlebell Café offers coffee, a juice bar, and healthy breakfast and lunch options. We spoke with Corbett and Olivier last week about the café and how small businesses like this are changing the landscape of Phnom Penh.

corbett-and-olivierCorbett worked as a barista for about 8 years. He calls these “the lost years,” but we think of it as “coffee-snob legitimacy training.” Having worked in the food service, he didn’t come to Cambodia to cook. Corbett landed here because of a podcast, obviously. After teaching English in Korea and living in Japan for a few years, he listened to an episode of This American Life that focused on Cambodia. He decided he would go to graduate school and get a job in Phnom Penh, and that is exactly what he did. (Side note: Corbett was Cait’s first new friend in Cambodia, they landed on the same day.)

After three years working at 17Triggers (a local company that does marketing for good causes), and working on his side businesses in his free time, he has decided to put all of his effort into Amatak and Kettlebell Café.

His interest in health and fitness is nothing new, but he has never been “one of those super fitness people.” Phnom Penh does not lack for restaurants, but it has been missing a healthy, balanced lunch spot. Most options are either filling and fatty or stingy and skinny. “One cannot live on salad alone, or one may chew one’s arm off.” Plato said that, or maybe it was Cait one time when she was hangry…In any case, the goal for the café is balance. The paleo-inspired menu is both healthy and delicious, while keeping reasonable prices and fast service.

coffee---finalTheir coffee is equally delicious.  Although a skilled former barista himself, Corbett sought the help of regional coffee consultant, Jen Green to help source equipment, beans and train staff to produce some fine liquid heaven. As a result, some are known to get their required dose here every morning in the form of a cortado (eg. Tiff).  To make things healthy, though Corbett prefers real dairy himself, almond milk is also offered for the lactose-deterring.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve been to (local coffee shop) and have been the only person in line just to get an espresso and its taken 5 minutes and they give you your water and everything before hand and it’s like “just give me my coffee so I can go.” So we wanted to fill that gap by providing high quality coffee. At a good speed and fair price. No flash.”

Corbett met Olivier, Kettlebell’s chef, when Olivier joined Crossfit in September. He had already been following a Paleo diet, so he was familiar with the ingredients and restrictions. (Though his weakness lies in French pastry, especially the mille feuille. He is, after all, human.) Olivier is from Paris, and he was trained as a chef and worked in some top restaurants serving very French cuisine. He has worked with some of the best restaurants in France, but his family is Cambodian, and he moved here two years ago to be with them.

While in Paris, he also worked for Air France Catering, so he has serious portioning skills. Most of his flavours come from his French influence, and he works with local products to create healthy, delicious, French-ish food, just without the bread and butter. The daily rotating menu keeps things interesting.

“The idea is that we don’t want people to come just once a week, but because the menu is constantly changing, they feel fine coming two or three times a week and enjoy the ‘what do we have today?’ atmosphere; which is also quite different, there aren’t too many places that do that.”


foodgridCambodia is an easy place to set up a business. It’s possible to take risks and be more creative here because there is less to lose and it’s easier to recover. Amatak is the first Crossfit gym in Cambodia, and Kettlebell is the first healthy café of its kind.

 “You can afford to fail here.”

The neighborhood is ripe for change and after these guys moved in, it now really is where the cool kids hang out. For a few years there has been a growing expat community in the neighborhood, but a serious lack of coffee and lunch options. With the opening of new places in the area, “People are keeping their money in the neighborhood for their weekday activities rather than going to BKK or riverside.”

kettlebell2This change has also prompted a pedestrian culture in the area. For those of you that do not live in Phnom Penh, sidewalks here are mostly used to store large vehicles, small vehicles, napping tuk tuk drives, piles of trash, stray dogs, and the occasional family taking a nap. This is to say, people don’t walk around much. But with this neighborhood renewal, you see more and more people walking, meaning less traffic and congestion in the area.


“So I’m not the model of fitness, obviously, but we can help encourage a more balanced lifestyle.”

There is talk of a bike shop (more on that soon), a possible second location of the Crossfit gym is in the works. But for now, the guys are working to fine-tune the current menu, work with portions and pricing, and reach a wider market beyond the expat community. As of now, about 90% of patrons and members are expats, but the vision is to take it further. They want to the area accessible and attractive to locals, and want to create a different kind of community in Russian Market. They are on their way.

Crossfit Amatak and the Kettlebell Café can be found at #45, street 454 (near corner of street 123) in Tuol Tom Puong, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  Kettlebell is still in it’s soft opening phase and are serving a limited number of plates Monday to Friday and only breakfast on Saturdays.  If you would like to book one of their boxed lunches or reserve a plate, check out the Crossfit Amatak Facebook page everyday!


All photos by Tiffany Tsang. Please request permission for use.