One 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.
Owners 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.
“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.‘”
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.