Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.
26: Soup from Reathrey Sekong
Anyone who follows this food section, or eating in metro Phoenix closely, knows we're flush with ambitious new Asian restaurants. Global cuisines are fracturing into sub-categories, into tighter, truer micro cuisines that better reflect regions within countries, and better mirror the way people abroad eat. Even if we're talking just Chinese, metro Phoenix now cooks Shaanxi, Szechuan, Cantonese, Hunan ...
When we roam over to southeast Asia, the discussion changes. Metro Phoenix also boasts plenty of places to slurp pho and crush banh xeo. We've even started to get brilliant regional Thai. The flavors of Vietnam and Thailand are widely lauded in the States, and justly so. They are huge. But the cuisines of other southeast Asian countries, those generally held by westerners to be lesser gastronomic forces, appear more sparsely.
That's the story with Cambodian in Phoenix. You won't find much. But you will find, if you care to look, insanely tasty Cambodian specialties. The source is a sleepy restaurant just a few feet from Indian School Road, but with a drab invisibility as you drive by: Reathrey Sekong.
Reathrey Sekong serves a formidable range of Cambodian food.
But who cares about mere range? Range itself is unimpressive. Too often, range is anathema to taste. How many Chinese restaurants serve 100 middling plates of brown food?
The great thing about Reathrey Sekong is that the place couples range and quality. And not just good Asian food, but food that can astound.
The quiet, dim dining room, where regulars sit drinking tea and waiting for noodles, is not generally a place where meek flavors live. Yes, a few more reserved dishes come from the kitchen – like a thin-broth pineapple soup with squash, lotus roots, and expertly cooked catfish – but the kitchen isn't afraid to go long.
A papaya salad made with fermented shrimp is a bazooka blast of marine funk. To American kids raised on pancakes, peanut butter sandwiches, and Gushers, these flavors are a new echelon of ocean flavor, a zone about as mind-boggling and unknowable as the fourth dimension.
Shrimp paste is a staple in southeast Asian cooking. It's used kind of like a spice, kind of like salt. Not giving a shit how people may react to shrimp paste's pungency, Reathrey Sekong displays a commitment to Cambodian flavors that extends to every corner of the menu.
Pork chops. Student noodles. A Cambodian relative of pho. Nam pang sandwiches. Dishes tend to course with unexpected flavor. One soup rises above the rest.
A lemongrass soup contains more flavor than one would think possible, or imaginable. Coconut milk married with lemongrass forms a velvety broth, so dense with lemongrass that bits of stalk can floating in a mustard-yellow, oily broth. The tropical spirit and fragrance of lemongrass power the soup, instantaneously relocating your palate to a remote part of the world. Coconut helps to center the exotic flavors, and so does tamarind, coming in as a mild sweetness on the edges.
The soup's bold flavors seem to balance on a high wire: lush and tropical (lemongrass), spicy (jalapeno), smooth and fatty (coconut and beef), aromatic (everything), mild and vegetal (eggplant and celery), and an undercurrent of funk from prahook.
Prahook is fermented fish paste.
The power and balance of this dish are rare, like a boxer who can endlessly dodge hooks or knock an opponent to Jupiter. It's so bold and wild that you don't even really notice the beef. Forget beef. It's that prahook, the thing most likely to offend unadventurous westerners, the thing that eateries less adept than Reathrey Sekong have historically left out, that helps to bridge the flavors.
Reathery Sekong doesn't hold back. It doesn't temper flavors so that Americans unused to fermented fish will enjoy a meal bent to their palates and, in the bending, made insipid. It doesn't water food down to sell more. It boldly ramps up flavors with a no-prisoners, stick-to-your-guns mindset.
And that's what ultimately makes the place an essential Phoenix restaurant.
Reathrey Sekong. 1312 East Indian School Road; 480-238-0238.
Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday.
The Essentials so far:
50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido
42: Tasting menu at Quiessence at The Farm
41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate
40: Green chile at Casa Reynoso
39: Brûlée burger from Paradise Valley Burger Company
38: Hand-pulled noodles from China Magic Noodle House
37: Carne adovada sliders at Dick's Hideaway
36: Crispy Pig Ear and Amaro cocktails from Crudo
35: Chile-laced specialties from Cafe Ga Hyang
34: Martinis at AZ88
33: Nooner at Duck & Decanter
32: Eggs Maximilian at Harlow's Cafe
31: Beef Tacos from Asadero Norte De Sonora
30: Orange Blossom from Huss Brewing Company
29: Rye bread from Yasha From Russia
28: Scotch Beef and Mashed Potatoes from Tarbell's
27: Griddled Corn Cakes and Ramona Farms Super Food Salad at Phoenix City Grille
26: Soup from Reathrey Sekong