I've Found It — And You Won't Be Disappointed!
(Updated Jan. 16, 2019)
Q. Where can you experience the sweet, spicy, tangy, and savory taste of authentic, non-Americanized, Cambodian fare at a fair price close to home?
A. In downtown White River Junction, VT at Pnomh Penh Sandwich Station, for lunch or dinner, from 11 am to 8 pm, now fully and newly refurbished and installed in the former Polka Dot Diner restaurant space with a grand view of trains, cars, and pedestrians as they make their comings and goings in and around WRJ. It may be the best view of the downtown from booths on the street side of the restaurant, though if you like trains, try the rear side for plenty of railroad activity!
A view of the interior from the bar area. Note all the wine and beer served is made right here in Vermont in a nod to the importance of supporting local vintners and brewers — including River Roost beer (of WRJ) on tap.
I dropped in for lunch today and was beyond pleasantly surprised to find Sarin, the co-owner, behind the bar area hand-crafting sandwiches and more great creations for his hungry patrons. His wife and co-owner, Lay, was also around to help with the food service, as were a few other employees. (Let me note there's a sign up in the front window advertising for help wanted. So, if you'd like to be part of this new venture, and food's your thing, please stop by and chat with Sarin.)
Co-owners, and partners Sarin (left) and Lay taking care of business to offer authentic Cambodian food to their patrons in a friendly and caring way.
Of course I had to order the namesake Pnomh Penh Sandwich (cover photo). It's a lovely melange of front of palate tastes of fresh cucumber and pickled carrot that opens up into grilled chicken with a lively chili mayo as an expansive and favorably memorable experience. All of this is captured within a freshly grilled sandwich roll that offers a crackly texture that just melts as it’s chewed. Then a perfect dose of fresh cilantro provides the final gesture by the chef to make this a best of the best sandwich experience. Really, the last time I had a sandwich this good was at a little Cuban place in Chicago. And there are more items on the menu I'll be going back to try just to sample the broad offerings this small diner has to offer.
Chicken Satay ready for my waiting fingers.
I also tried the Chicken Satay which presented as two gently grilled and browned chicken filets on wooden skewers accompanied by a mild peanut sauce for dipping — and finger licking. Sauces are made in house, including their Hot Chili Sauce that filters it’s heat through a sweet base, offering a pleasantly surprising mouth-warming experience, as well as their Pickled Jalapeño Sauce that's an unusual jalapeño taste that takes a moment to fully form making for a surprise addition to any dish. I fell in love with the Hot Chili Sauce and added it in liberal doses to my sandwich.
I was just about ready to leave when Chef Sarin suggested I try the one dessert item on the menu, the Che Dau. This is served in a small bowl with sweet sticky rice, black eyed beans, sugar, and coconut milk served warm. WOW was my initial reaction, and yummy was my overall feeling as I enjoyed its warm, comforting sweetness to cap off an otherwise delectable meal. WRJ has just become my new epicurean epicenter of the Upper Valley thanks to this little diner.
Che Dau for dessert. Comfort food at its finest.
I turned from my high perch at the bar to see two dear friends, Dave Briggs and Peggy Adams, enjoying lunch in the booth behind me. We chatted for a while about immigration and other vexing topics of the day noting that (insiders' scoop here) if you want real warmth on a cold Vermont day, turn left as you enter the diner and settle in as far down that aisle as you can to get close to a heater that really delivers.
Dave and Peggy at the booth behind me. This spot is quickly becoming a great meeting spot for locals, just like it's always been.
While we're on the topic of immigration, I should note that Sarin arrived here in the U.S. back in 2004. He worked at Hypertherm, moving from 1st to 2nd to 3rd shift to help him accommodate his purchase of a food truck which is how he launched his business of offering Cambodian fare to the Upper Valley. He initially started with a table at the Hanover Farmers Market, then evolved to the food truck on the Lebanon Green, then purchased space in Lebanon at 1 High Street, a take-out-only location that's ongoing, and, finally and most recently, established this second location in White River Junction. He's since left Hypertherm, but I, for one, am thrilled he made the giant leap to get here, rolling up his sleeves to do the hard work and heavy lifting it takes to get a venture like this off the ground and thriving. We need more people like Sarin coming to America.
A menu that's plenty expansive for any discerning palate. Plus there's a catering menu, and a wine/beer menu as well. And the prices are quite reasonable.
As Sarin mentioned today, he's ecstatic to get out-of-the-area travelers on their way to points north and south of WRJ, but it's really the local-area residents whose support his new restaurant needs to survive. This is a sweet little spot that's as charming today as it has been for decades in its previous incarnation as the Polka Dot Diner (though much cleaned up and refreshed, and absent the cigarette smoke I remember from the Polka Dot's days). In a nod to its roots, the old Polka Dot sign remains on one wall of the now vibrant Phnom Penh Sandwich Station. One other thing to mention is that Sarin and his staff will cater events for parties and groups of up to 300 people. Now how about a taste of authentic Cambodian fare for your next gathering?
A bit of the old signage to grace the new surroundings. With the best views of all the comings and goings in White River Junction through front and back windows.
Give Phnom Penh Sandwich Station a try. You'll be glad you did. I think they have the best sandwich going in the Upper Valley. Next up, dinner!
Dave Celone of E. Thetford, VT writes as Poetic Licence for the dailyuv.com. Please offer your comments below to let him know what you think about this article. Do feel free to share this piece on your social media channels and however else you can spread the word. Many thanks!