Not long after arriving in this country as a Cambodian refugee, 12-year-old Sopheak Richard Neth could be found playing video games after school in a corner arcade at Sixth and Morris Streets, waiting for his parents to get off work.
"We'd come from a hot, tropical climate and all of a sudden, I remember being really cold," recalls Neth.
More than two decades later, the 36-year-old now known as "Rick" and by day a meat specialist at Weaver's Way Co-ops, is pure Philadelphian: "I don't consider myself anything else."
But as entrepreneurial fate led him back to that very same corner storefront in South Philadelphia, the little family restaurant called Khmer Kitchen he now co-owns there with wife Dyna, sister Sophia, and his mother, head cook Phalla Lon, is very much a pipeline to that little boy's past - and his future.
The past comes vividly alive on the plate here with the snap of green flower buds from the bitter melon, laced through shreds of icy cabbage and tender pork with a distinctively refreshing bite that cuts through the tangy tamarind dressing. It's unmistakable in the deep funk of fermented fish paste swirling like an undertow through many dishes, including Cambodia's famous "sour soup," salaw machu kre'ung, humming with fresh lemongrass and holy basil, fiery chiles and Kaffir lime.
The future is in his daughter, Destiny, the 3-year-old often seen peeking out from behind the counter of this brightly painted orange room, who can already identify one of her favorite dishes - country beef cubes in oyster sauce - by its proper Cambodian name: cha lok lak.
"That makes me so happy," says Rick, who in his Americanizing youth, had momentarily forgotten his mother tongue.
Recovering that personal culture, and sharing it with the city, is a part of his family's mission at Khmer (pronounced "Come-I") Kitchen. And in many ways, it is overdue for the large Cambodian community that's been rooted here since the mid-'80s, according to Rorng Sorn, executive director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia.
About half of the region's estimated 20,000 Cambodians still live in South Philly between Snyder and Oregon Avenues, she said. That authentic Cambodian flavors are only now just starting to emerge from the shadow of a much larger Vietnamese presence (in Northeast Philly, too, at Angkor) is a sign, Sorn says, of a once-impoverished community finally coming into its own one generation later.
When I taste the vibrant fare from Khmer Kitchen, I can only wonder why it took so long. Cambodian cooking shares many traits with the cuisines of neighboring countries, but its use of pungent fermented fish paste is more assertive than what you'll find from local Vietnamese kitchens, and its coconut-milk curries are both lighter and more elegant than what I've tasted in American Thai restaurants.
Lon's soups, in particular, are where the complexity shines. The sour soup, which we tried with chicken (beef and tripe is the other option) was a perfect starting point, and really benefitted from the optional extra chile heat. But there were other winners, such as the kabocha pumpkin stew, salaw ka-koe, that was a marvel not simply for its rich lemongrass broth thickened with earthy roasted rice powder, but also the perfect textures of its myriad vegetables, the snappy long beans, crunchy papaya shreds, soft Thai eggplants, and toothy squash. The pineapple soup with rib tips did somersaults on the tongue as flavors fell like dominoes - the sweetness of coconut cream tumbling into chile heat, then bracing pineapple acidity, then the lingering warmth of Lon's curry.
Each day, Lon smashes three kinds of dried chiles for this curry with turmeric, galangal, and Kaffir lime with a mortar and pestle. In another dish, it is added to a slow-simmering pot of chicken and coconut milk, patiently unfolding on the palate, unlike the quick-hit, quick-fade punch typical of store-bought curries.
Every dish here is made to order, which has earned Khmer Kitchen a reputation for slowness, even among Cambodians. But careful layering of the flavors is key, even down to a momentary ice-water bath for shredded cabbage just before blending into salads for maximum crunch. Aside from the bitter melon flowers, I loved the salad with raw beef, pleah sak-koe, thinly sliced eye-of-round tossed with lime and fish sauce. The shredded papaya salad, tossed with garlic, crushed peanuts, and tangy dressing, is a perfect example of Cambodians' embrace of a more pungent fish sauce presence (fermented shrimp in this case) that isn't for everyone.
When used well, and added at the right moment (early) for proper layering, it lends extra depth to flavors without being jarring. The bowl of spicy ground pork called phrah-hok katheeth, touched with fermented monkfish, then curried with coconut, becomes simply the most exotic bowl of chili I've ever eaten, with a crudite of vegetables, including novel raw eggplant, to give each bite a crunchy, cool bounce. Fermented fish, first grilled inside a banana-leaf package with chiles and garlic, is also the secret note that gives Sophia's salsa-like tomato sauce (tuhk prohok) magnetic powers alongside the grilled beef called sak-koe ang'.
I was disappointed that our steak for that dish was overcooked - I'd seen it sliced beautifully pink and juicy on a neighbor's table at a previous visit. But that sauce, splashed on a piece of meat wrapped inside a big, fresh basil leaf, redeemed all.
Even so, it was a reminder that Khmer Kitchen, although a pleasantly tidy and peaceful space (save for the giant TV), is still a humble operation, with many of the inconsistencies typical of a family place run by first-timers. We were occasionally served food without silverware to eat it with. Our fried calamari wasn't as crisp as I'd have liked. The grilled beef skewers were consistently chewy.
The mildly curried chicken skewers were better. The grilled meatballs touched with (you guessed it!) fish sauce were better yet - completely irresistible.
The fried shrimp were delicately crisp and surprisingly plump, with a lemongrass coconut curry dip that made the dish. I crave the tangy pineapple sauce that came over the big, whole tilapia. But next time I'd order it on the side to more easily navigate the deboning.
Dyna's specialty of curried mussels, though, were the ultimate easy-access seafood pleasure. I usually don't like bigger green mussels. But carefully steamed over the broth rather than submerged in it, these were both meaty and tender, like sea medallions anointed on the half shell in a coconut curry heightened by fresh chiles and aromatic basil.
With flavors as genuine as these curries now warming their South Philadelphia corner, I'm hoping Rick Neth and his family make this return to Sixth and Morris a very long stay indeed.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at email@example.com, or on Twitter: @CraigLaBan.