Sophia Neth had come too far to let a little vowel get in the way of her kitchen comeback. So why not call it Sophia’s Kitchen? “That name was taken,” she says. “So I went with Sophie’s Kitchen instead, and it works.”
It’s working to the point that her son, Tony Duk, who runs the second-floor dining room of this charming Cambodian BYOB on Washington Avenue, played along without even a hint of an identity crisis: “Sophie’s my mom, and she cooks everything downstairs,” he said proudly, hands brimming with plates of fragrant stuffed chicken wings, pungent papaya salads, and stir-fried meats radiating lemongrass spice. “Basically, you’re eating in my home.”
It’s a heartfelt sentiment that translates to the pleasant dining room, where each table blooms with potted green succulents and flat-screen TVs play This Is Us and The Secret Life of Pets overhead. But it’s the food whose identity is unmistakable: a pure expression of Cambodian home cooking whose vivid flavors are powered by the essential spice paste called kroeung.
Neth, 47, hand-pounds lemongrass, garlic, galangal and kaffir lime leaves daily for her universal kroeung power source before elaborating on it with tangy turmeric powder, or sweet palm sugar, or the funk and spice of the fish paste known as prahok, for what seems like dozens of various stir-fries, soups and grill marinades. A red kroeung enriched with coconut milk, chilies, and a hint of star anise glazes grilled chicken sticks that seem plain until you take a bite. The surprising layers of spice and sweetness and herbal persuasion imbued in its tender meat suddenly accelerated my hunger.
The classic crudité dish of prahok kteah blends two kinds of kroeung paste — the red and a yellow tinged with turmeric — along with palm sugar, coconut milk and fermented mudfish paste (prahok) for a meaty, ground pork dip that has an unusually magnetic savor of caramelized sweetness hedged by a red chili glow and subtle tidal twang. It’s unstoppably good over slices of raw eggplant, or rolled inside snappy sheets of crunchy raw cabbage.
Prahok plays an even bolder role in a powerful sauce to accompany grilled-steak lettuce wraps, a dish of sliced beef over romaine leaves and herbs. The charcoal gray dip, a thick puree made from charred tomatoes, garlic and chilies, is mixed with the fish paste that gets caramelized over the grill between layers of foil: “I tone it down,” says Neth. “My parents like their prahok raw.”
It was nonetheless among the most intense — and umami-boosting — condiments I’ve eaten this year.
A stir-fried entree called chha kroeung brought a mound of tender meat (beef one night, chicken the other) sauteed in a yellow kroeung paste amped with jalapeño heat that, alongside the sweet crunch of bell peppers, made the lemongrass shimmer. A rich pumpkin stew jazzed with kroeung, but also a kiss of sugar for sweetness, took on a deep earthiness from roasted jasmine rice that’s pulverized and used to thicken its broth.
I remember tasting these very flavors before at Khmer Kitchen many years ago when Sophia, in tandem with her brother Rick Neth and mother, Phalla Lon, first introduced me to the vibrant cuisine of an immigrant community that finally, after a generation in South Philly, was emerging to stake its entrepreneurial claims.
Khmer Kitchen unfortunately closed when the partnership dissolved two years ago, and my disappointment was partly softened by the emergence of others, like I Heart Cambodia, the Boba and Co. food truck, as well as the food stalls that regularly set up their fragrant charcoal grills in FDR Park on weekend mornings. But Neth is one of my favorite Cambodian chefs in town, and I missed her cooking. And she felt her own stifled urges to cook reach a boiling point in 2018 when, after an unsatisfying detour working at a nail salon, she made her husband, Danny Duk, pull the car over at the sight of a “for lease” sign on Washington Avenue.
“This is my spot,” she told him. “You know we can do something with this place.”
The only catch was a troubling history. This tidy brick building at 522 Washington Ave. was the site of a gruesome murder in early 2017, when an employee at what was then Lee’s Cafe & Bistro allegedly killed the chef, Thuong Nguyen, in the basement kitchen. Lee’s subsequently closed and remained vacant for months. Even the real estate agent refused to follow Neth and Duk to the downstairs kitchen when the property was being shown: “We were like … you coming down?” she said.
Her friends advised her against it, saying the tragedy had cursed the address with bad luck. But Neth, who expressed sorrow for the victim, also would not be deterred. She had come too far, and overcome too many scarring tragedies in her own life to pause now. She had lived through the genocidal terror of the Khmer Rouge as a girl, losing family members, and once literally stumbling into a pit of discarded bodies on her way to bring her father food at a work camp. She subsequently walked three sleepless days with her family through a landscape of atrocities on their escape to Thailand.
After a five-year stint in Arkansas as refugees, they moved in 1987 to South Philly, where the Cambodian community was growing, and that is where they’ve made their life. She and Duk looked for restaurant spaces in Fishtown and elsewhere in North Philly. But this corner space amidst the neighborhood’s bustling Asian shopping corridor was their home no matter what: “Nope,” she said to the detractors. “This place was meant to be ours.”
The joyful beauty of this food — with its vivid colors and electric flavors — is all the more astounding given the tragedy of her family history. And cooking these traditional recipes together with her husband and four sons, including Jordan, Brandon, and Givon, assures a continuity and pride in culture, “even if they always answer me back in English.”
Neth has mastered a wide range of Cambodian specialties, which occupy a unique place along the Southeast Asian flavor spectrum of sweetness, sourness, spice and funk, and it carries perhaps a shade less heat than Thai and Lao cooking, she says. I taste similarities to Vietnamese cuisine in the clear broth bowls of Kuy Tiev Phnom Penh rice noodle soup, whose pork and chicken broth is tinged with dried seafood and radish, then jeweled with a butcher’s delight of offal cuts.
Cambodians have a talent for giving their chicken wings extra intrigue — deboning, then stuffing them with glass noodles, wood ear mushrooms, and chopped chicken meat zapped with kroeung and a whiff of holy basil. It’s the chicken transformed into its own char-kissed dumpling, and I cannot get enough.
The Cambodian fondness for sour flavors is fully expressed in the wide range of crunchy salads (try the bitter flower), soups, and stews.
Tamarind sourness paired with citrus and potent spice is also the secret to the classic green papaya salad called bok lahong. Its crunchy threads are pounded in a mortar with shrimp paste, garlic, chilies and lime, with an adjustable heat scale. We went with medium spice, and it left my lips humming in the best way — the papaya’s red-stained threads bundled on the plate like noodles, but with a unique crunch that sent those powerful flavors resonating across my taste buds with extra volume.
Neth’s cooking, though, has a softer side, too. Most memorable was a weekend special called ah mok sach trey, a delicate fish stew (swai our night, but sometimes salmon) steamed inside an open banana leaf pouch with coconut milk, kroeung, and palm sugar.
It was a surprising package that looked like a work of latte art, a foamy whip of coconut milk floating over top the banana leaf cup like a cloud. But just below its creamy fluff sweetness, the boneless chunks of fish bathed in an orange sauce that was simultaneously rich and bold with spice. Bite after bite, the lemongrass vibrance of Neth’s hand-pounded kroeung came through like a beating heart.