Sydney is about to get schooled on the flavours of Cambodia. Kingdom of Rice, the latest pop-up at the former Mr Liquor's Dirty Italian Disco site, opens this Friday, bringing the flavours of the Southeast Asian nation into a setting rich in savvy drinks and banging tunes. A collaboration between Acme co-founders Mitch Orr and Cam Fairbairn and their friends and colleagues Lillia McCabe and Sophia Thach, Kingdom of Rice draws on Thach's Cambodian heritage, as well as some Acme dishes from menus past.
According to McCabe, the idea is to recreate the bustling, open-air eateries found on the streets of Phnom Penh. "You don't eat anywhere else," she says. "You don't go and eat in restaurants. The street is where the good food is at. It's about pulling up a chair and seeing what's out there."
So far, so good. But what exactly is Cambodian food? In a city with a century-old Chinatown, and where great Thai and Vietnamese are commonplace, where banh mi, yum cha and larbs are familiar to most of the dining public, knowledge of the dishes of Cambodia is far less common.
Chef McCabe and Thach, floor manager and resident authority on Cambodian food, talked us through the menu and the inspiration for some of their favourite dishes. The pair travelled to Cambodia a month ago, spending their days eating on the street, getting massages, and then hitting the street-eats some more. The skewers on the Kingdom's opening menu – choose from shiitake mushroom, caramelised pork or lemongrass beef – come just as they do in Phnom Penh, with halved banh mi-style rolls, some pickled papaya salad and condiments including lime, ground pepper and fermented chilli paste. The idea is to stuff the bun with whatever's on the skewer, season it and then hit the road. "It's a great walking snack," Thach says.
A nightly pop-up serving barbecued seafood was another favourite. What was a parking lot for motorcycles during the day was transformed each night by a team hauling trolleys of woks, produce stools and fish.
"They make our pop-up look so shameful," Thach says. "They do that every day."
Grilled calamari finished with pork fat and spring onion, prawns coated in a sticky tamarind, chilli and garlic sauce, and whole grilled fish flavoured with lemongrass, coconut and fresh herbs are just a few of the dishes inspired by that open-air kitchen.
The grill gets a good work-out on everything, from the banana that's served with sticky rice for dessert to the skewers and the stuffed chicken wings – one of Thach's personal favourites on the menu. Boned and then stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, chicken and kreung (a paste of lemongrass, galangal and turmeric), the wings are brushed with a smoky barbecue glaze before being cooked over charcoal. "You don't really find them in Cambodia because chicken wings are just tiny," Thach says. "So they stuff them in frogs instead."
Thach's upbringing, moving between the worlds of Cambodian and Australian culture, comes to the fore in other dishes, such as the pandan waffles that she recalls eating as a child at Cabramatta markets. For Kingdom of Rice's version, the team is getting a soft-serve machine on-site so diners can DIY their ratio of waffle to coconut soft-serve.
Other parts of the menu lean more traditional. A popular breakfast dish of dried fish and watermelon is served as a snack, "Cambodia's answer to prosciutto and melon" says Thach, while the country's famed Kampot pepper (which the team are importing direct) shows up in everything from a rich sauce accompanying grilled flank steak to a dish of pippies fried in the wok and seasoned with fresh lime.
The cocktails are essentially spiked versions of Cambodian tropical fruit drinks. Whole coconuts get a splash of rum, jasmine tea is mixed with Hennessy and sugarcane juice becomes a gin slushie on the opening menu. Between those and the walk-in fridges stocked with Angkor, a Cambodian bottled lager, and other refreshing Asian brews, plus the natural wines popular at Acme and Mr Liquor's, the formula for fun times looks locked and loaded, regardless of your Cambodian vocabulary.
"I think everyone should just expect something really fun and come party with us," says McCabe.
Kingdom of Rice, Tennyson Hotel, 952 Botany Rd, Mascot, NSW, (02) 9114 7345, merivale.com. Opens 12 October. Lunch Fri and Sun, noon-3pm; dinner Wed-Fri 5.30pm-midnight, Sat 5pm-midnight, Sun 5.30pm-10pm.