Kingdom of Rice in Mascot is a best-of compilation of Cambodian food – as remastered by some familiar names from Acme. Mitch Orr, Cam Fairbairn, Lillia McCabe (back from Singapore’s Blackwattle) and Sophia Thach have taken over the location left by Mr Liquor’s Dirty Italian Disco and transformed it: now it’s essentially a landing strip that takes you right into Phnom Penh.
Cam says the menu isn’t like any you’d see in Cambodia – where you make individual trips to particular open-air stalls for the one thing they’ve got a good rep for. Kingdom of Rice bypasses the need for these multi-stop journeys and conveniently puts all these dishes under one roof. Essentially, it retraces the hall-of-fame street food that the crew has tried on past trips (like lort cha: rice drop noodles stir-fried with bean sprouts and topped with a fried egg) while also recalling Cambodian staples that Sophia has grown up with.
So, the DIY sandwiches (which let you riff on banh mi by accessorising papaya salad and charred baguettes from Hong Ha with skewers of lemongrass beef, shiitake mushrooms or caramelised pork) are a throwback to Sophia’s childhood, while the trey neet alek (dried fish and watermelon) was a familiar sight at breakfast when growing up. The rice drop noodles kept everyone fed while her mum logged “a million hours” at work.
The ultra-fragrant turmeric fried rice with Thai basil, meanwhile, has an origin story from Phnom Penh: Sophia was only in the city for one week, but the OG version of this dish was so good that she conspired to eat it three times during her very short stay. The shopfront she kept returning to served the dish with fried chicken and pickles – but at Kingdom of Rice, it’s great enough to stand on its own. It resounds with so much flavour that it’ll inspire a guessing game, but if you fail to ID the ingredients, know that the rice grains are dialled all the way up, thanks to kreung, a paste that gets its multi-zing punch from garlic, eschalot, ginger, lemongrass (so much ginger and lemongrass!), galangal, turmeric and kaffir lime.
You might remember Mitch talking on The Mitchen about finding chicken wings in Phnom Penh that were in his all-time top five? You might assume what’s on the menu here is a tribute to that experience, but the wings can actually be credited to Sophia.
“The dishes are also cooked the way Sophia’s mum cooked them for her, or how Sophia cooks them. Some of the dishes she’s been cooking for me for a long time,” says Mitch. Everything else, though, taps into memories from their Phnom Penh experiences. And sure, you might not see entire restaurants wheeled onto the back of individual trucks here; or witness the time-lapse magic of a parking lot becoming a stall-packed eatery in just hours – or even clock sights such as eight people squeezed onto a scooter. But Kingdom of Rice circulates on the buzz and energy of a Cambodian market, nevertheless.
Recreating everything in Sydney required some leftfield thinking (Mitch mentions how the “aunties or uncles don’t want to share all their secrets”, so he had to reverse-engineer dishes to work out how locals made the turmeric fried rice, for instance). And while he credits Sophia for the food, she says it was a collaborative effort – claiming that she and Mitch “brain-dumped all the dishes we love and with Lil’s help, she brings them to life”. Sophia’s mother, in typical Asian mum-style, gave her feedback on the food (pleasing Asian mums can be famously/hilariously hard), which allowed the team to tweak things to the highest accuracy setting.
But Kingdom of Rice makes it feel like you’re experiencing the real deal in many ways. When you enter, you’re served cold jasmine tea (a move that’s straight up aunty-like hospitality) and given kaffir lime and lemongrass peanuts as a complimentary snack (it’s a real test not to clear the whole bowl in one go – they’re so ridiculously easy to demolish). The fact that Kingdom of Rice is effectively in a garage also evokes the tin-shed simplicity of the Cambodian markets. And the giant tins of Milo are cultural shorthand for how the choc-malt drink has such a big following over there (you might not realise this straight away, as the locals call it “Mee-lo”). Once the soft-serve machine starts behaving, expect some Milo-inspired dessert on the menu.
Some of the Cambodian dishes have been modulated for Australian palates (the corn with garlic chives has had its overly sweet levels pared back), and if you’re after vegetarian-friendly versions of the menu, you can ask nicely and the kitchen will skip the shrimp paste or pork fat that might’ve been on the ingredients list.
But however you play it, there’s so much to like at Kingdom of Rice: from the zing of the green mango slices that you dip into chilli and salt to the soy-darkened rice drop noodles that are so demolition-ready that you get why they’re so ubiquitous in Phnom Penh. Our friends Tom and Adele (like Grab Your Fork’s Helen Yee) also loved the barramundi with lemongrass and coconut. Char and heavy-duty heat turn up in key dishes: from the telltale grill marks on the DIY banh mi to the smoky eggplant that co-headlines a chicken mince dish with coriander (which Will liked, but Helen enjoyed so much she’s basically proposed marriage to it).
Something you shouldn’t overlook at Kingdom of Rice: the projections on the wall. Sophia’s filmmaking friend Kavich Neang actively tried to find pre-war films that weren’t destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. So what unspools on the walls are some of the movies he was able to preserve. It’s a tragic-but-triumphant back story worth knowing about.
It’s something I learn about from Cam, who, like Sophia, is such a bright and welcoming presence on the restaurant floor. He’ll advise you to order “semi-aggressively” and exclaim “what a time to be alive!” when ushering dishes to people’s tables. Cam also drops lots of good TV-watching advice (he’s the reason I finally watched The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising is next on my list), while Sophia openly shares lots of vivid intel and memories about specific Cambodian-inspired dishes. Think back to The Mitchen episode that recounts how the aunties at Phnom Penh markets would give Sophia high-fives when she walked through (she was essentially “mayor of the street”) – a similar charge of generosity and fun also runs through Kingdom of Rice.
The same “how can you not like this?” streak can be found in the Pandan Waffle ($12) with toasted coconut and coconut sorbet. The waffle might remind you of Mitch’s ube waffle at Acme, but it’s also a mash-up of Cabramatta and Phnom Penh: the pandan dessert is something you’ll see in the 2166 postcode, while coconut waffles are something you’ll get in the Cambodian capital.
Oh and for another taste of Cabra – there’s an on-site sugarcane press that produces juice that you can spike with booze (vodka or whiskey, for instance, although gin is my pick). It echoes the breezy South East Asian atmosphere perfectly. And yes, you could put on a puffy jacket and be reminded of how good the Franck Moreau-vetted wine collection is in the cool room, too. There are also pandan pina coladas and fruit shake slushies (with or without the booze). If you’re feeling low-key, a house-made papaya soda is a good way to stay out of trouble.
If Kingdom of Rice is not-so-secretly a way to resupply everyone with reasons to visit Phnom Penh, well, it’s a pretty convincing initiative. You totally buy the enthusiasm everyone has for the place, and it radiates throughout the restaurant – the place buzzes with unregulated delight for Cambodia. Even if you can’t get there for your own personal tour, being in the passenger’s seat for Kingdom of Rice’s version is pretty damn great. But, as a pop-up, there are term limits on how long this Merivale collaboration will be around for. So visit as often as you can before it drops out in six months – this playlist of Cambodia’s greatest hits can’t stay at full blast for all time.
UPDATE: Sadly, the pop-up ended earlier than scheduled. Hopefully Kingdom of Rice lives again in some other form!