Restaurants across the nation have been devastated by the pandemic, from months of shutdowns to nerves over whether capricious weather might threaten the outdoor dining that has fueled a revival. But few also had to overcome the life-threatening challenges of the coronavirus that beset the family behind Sophie’s Kitchen, a beloved Cambodian restaurant in South Philadelphia.
“I was so scared, I thought I might die,” said chef Sophia Neth, recalling the April day she was separated from her husband and two children at Methodist Hospital, where they also had gone with severe COVID-19 symptoms. “What if I don’t see my kids again?”
Yes, she would. The entire family would recover despite tenuous moments in intensive care. And Neth’s vibrant cooking, from lemongrass stir-fries to pumpkin-jasmine rice stews, coconut curried mussels, sausage-stuffed chicken wings, and phahok kteah pork dip, would radiate with fragrant life force from her tiny Washington Avenue kitchen again.
But for a woman who had already survived so much — escaping the horrors of genocide in Cambodia, opening a restaurant to sustain her family (“The biggest moment in my mom’s life … finally edging closer to that American dream,” says son Brandon.) — this would be another long and fretful journey.
It took months to recover their strength, test negative, and overcome the stigma of returning to work after recovering from COVID-19. But with lush foliage now fringing their handsome sidewalk seating (“My jungle,” jokes Sophia.) and a groundswell of support from customers dining once more on her bitter flower salads, lemongrass beef soups, and deep-fried quails, Sophie’s Kitchen’s return ranks among the year’s most inspiring comebacks.
“I thought about quitting,” says Sophia. “But this business is not just about me, it’s for my whole family.”
Sophie’s Kitchen, 522 Washington Ave., 215-271-0888; on Instagram