Taqueria Corona, the new Mexican-style restaurant on Phnom Penh’s Street 51, is an inviting, unpretentious establishment recently opened but already making friends out of acquaintances.
Having lived for a while in the Mission in San Francisco, where the taqueria is ubiquitous and where, after a night out, one would often queue for a foil-wrapped parcel of meat, rice and beans to messily recharge, Mexican “cuisine” is not necessarily my first choice for an evening out.
A burrito, to my mind at least, is best indulged as a carnal pleasure: consumed greedily and without dignity. So, when an American friend assured me that Taqueria Corona’s “mission style” burrito, was “amazing,” I was happy to find that my initial skepticism was quickly dispelled.
The mass marketing of Mexican cuisine has transformed what is essentially the country’s fast food—nachos, tacos, burritos—into a globally thriving dining “experience,” where margaritas, lime-corked beer bottles and tequila shots are as central as the food they chase down. It’s the type of food the Irish would have invented, if only they’d had the ingredients. And that is why, following up on recommendations by friends of this or that “great little Mexican place,” one often concludes that something other than the food had left such great impressions.
The decor in Taqueria Corona was simple and smart enough to indicate that the food would not be taking a back seat to the surroundings or the impressive drinks list.
We ordered three entrees from a surprisingly expansive menu to share, each of which was helpfully described by the chipper, charming young waiter, but in case there was any doubt, the Spanish-named meat fillings were explained in a primer at the head of the menu.
The first dish to arrive was the fresh shrimp tacos, served in flour tortillas lying open for inspection. They looked a little slight, lightly dressed with blanched cabbage and lacking visual punch, but after a bite it was easy to understand why. The tortilla was pleasantly soft but firm. The shrimp were fat, succulent and slightly sweet. The cabbage was lightly vinegared and the salsa, which we initially thought was a little skimpy, was full of just the right flavors—garlic, cilantro, and the almost-sourness of chopped tomatoes. The overall effect was clean and fresh. And while it was not exactly the portion-size I had imagined, these were tacos best savored in small, mannered bites, and they were delicious.
Without condiments the tacos lacked a little heat, but the “MF” hot sauce was served as an accompaniment, and it lived up to its unspoken, but quickly comprehended initials. What is special about this sauce is the sweet ripe mango that gives it its burnt orange color and deep, fruity flavor that really cools the burn-factor of the chili.
Next up was the Mission-style burrito with barbacoa slow-roasted shredded beef. This was a much more boisterous proposition, and while it didn’t particularly evoke the Mission district, it is a fulfilling symbiosis of textures and flavors: succulent savory beef; melted cheese; fresh salsa; rice; black beans; garlic; and because these flavors can take it, a gratuitous helping of MF sauce.
The shrimp taco, which worked as a starter to the burrito, did not leave much appetite for our third entree, the red enchiladas, which were an altogether overwhelming, but delicious, portion of salty, spice-rubbed chicken, tomato sauce and melted cheese.
We had chosen classic margaritas to start, which were a little disappointing when they arrived. Served on-the-rocks style rather than strained, they were over-salted, a little sharp and lacked the necessary sweetness that triple sec should bring. Still, they packed plenty of punch and were palatable enough.
The couple behind Taqueria Corona is William Brown and his partner, Sopheap Von, and they are a personable, enthusiastic pair. Their restaurant has a confident, yet casual character, which is no surprise as they bring together a vast amount of experience. Ms. Von, as a former manager at Pop Cafe in Phnom Penh, has the front of house know-how, and Mr. Brown, or Will, as he prefers it, is a sort of North American nomad whose previous ventures include a (still) hugely successful gourmet burger restaurant in New York.
Much like the concept of the gourmet burger, Taqueria Corona’s Mexican food is a kindred spirit. It is about elevating the familiar, getting the basics right, using the best ingredients and making sure that the service and the environment are spot on. It makes sense, then, that Will and Sopheap have hit the mark. Taqueria Corona was a worthwhile dining experience, and it now has two more names to add to its growing list of friends.