Thai food may be ubiquitous throughout Phnom Penh, but Keo Lykoum, 21, and Heng Chamraeun, 22, are determined to bring something new to the table.
“Many places [in Phnom Penh] offer both Khmer and Thai food,” says Lykoum. “But we thought—how about only Thai food? Most Thai food [only] places have high prices, and most Cambodians can’t afford it. So I thought about having quality and low prices [for our restaurant].”
Built on the savings of the two business administration students at Pannasastra University, the restaurant has been running for about a month and a half, and is already doing brisk business so far.
They credit their background as children of businesspeople, and their early entrepreneurial start, with setting them up for success. Lykoum started working at the age of 12 as a salesperson at his aunt’s electronics shop, and then worked in a phone shop when he moved to Phnom Penh.
He also became a money lender on the side. Chamraeun, on the other hand, opened an online shop, selling “everything”, according to him. The savings they had from their previous jobs allowed them to open De Map in Boeung Keng Kang I.
According to Lykoum, the pair began by travelling Thailand to study the food. There is no provincial focus to the cuisine but, having grown up on the border between Cambodia and Thailand, Chamraeun was exposed early on to Thai food, and now creates the recipes at the restaurant and judges the authenticity of the food.
“One of the most important things is: ‘Can my customers accept this taste?’,” he says. This is the barometer that both partners use in determining whether their creations work—whether the flavours will appeal to locals.
Among a sampling of dishes tasted by Post Weekend, the standout was the Fried Octopus with Salt Egg ($3.75), which is topped with a delicious tomato-based gravy. The Seafood Noodle Salad ($3.25) features glass noodles with tomatoes, minced pork and squid.
Running the restaurant is done alongside their studies, and it leaves them with little free time. Their biggest challenge, rather than the lack of time, is the competition.
“Customers don’t trust us because [our food] is cheap,” Lykoum says. It’s the stereotype that good Thai food has to be expensive, compared to the average Khmer restaurant, that they are pushing against, which they say has been an uphill battle.
With bright blue walls and light-bulbs hanging above each table, De Map is a welcoming and unpretentious space, though Lykoum and Chamraeum say down the line they hope to expand.
“A restaurant should be bigger, with a big parking lot, and our own [building],” says Iykoum. “Someone asked me: ‘Why do you name it a restaurant? It’s only a small shop.’ But I think [calling it a restaurant shows] our dreams.”