Keep your head up or you'll completely miss the almost-hidden turn from Indian School Road into the parking lot of Sekong by Night, Phoenix's first Cambodian restaurant (and probably the only one in the state of Arizona). And don't be confused by that wall mural of a flamenco-dancing couple you'll encounter before you walk into this authentic Khmer dining experience.
You know you're not in Seville anymore when you spot the Southeast Asian décor of this tiny place. It's filled with wooden-slat benches neatly lined up against deep burgundy walls dotted with the occasional framed image of graceful Khmer dancers, with a long table intersecting its center. Near the entrance, there's a dais featuring a roneat, a type of Khmer xylophone made of pieces of bamboo, and an ornate gilded dance headdress traditionally associated with Cambodia's centuries-old royal court.
Sekong by Night's unassuming location and minimalist décor belie the restaurant's true-to-its-roots Khmer food offerings. Sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia borrows from both cultures when it comes to food. Actually, I'm told it was the Khmers who exported their existing culture to Thailand after the Thais invaded what's now Cambodia 500 years ago, which accounts for the great cultural similarities between the two countries. Add on top a sprinkling of French, Indian, and Chinese influences. That explains the bottles of sriracha (classic Thai hot sauce) and hoisin (a dark Chinese dipping sauce), as well as the small bowls of teuk trei (the Cambodian version of mandatory fermented fish sauce that accompanies most dishes in Southeast Asia), on the tables.
According to its menu, Sekong (apparently named after a tributary of the Mekong River on Cambodia's border with Laos) is devoted to delivering healthful food easily found in the open-air markets and on the carts of street vendors all over Cambodia. That includes soups, a variety of rice and noodle dishes, barbecued meats and seafood, fresh vegetable salads, grilled corn, and the supreme French contribution to Khmer culture, the baguette sandwich.
So maybe you won't find baskets of fried grasshoppers, or skewers of barbecued snake and grilled eggs (yes, eggs on skewers, the innards of which have been blown out, spiced up and funneled back into their shells, then speared and grilled), or those gigantic fresh water pill-bug-like creatures that are considered real Khmer delicacies, here at Sekong. What you will find is generous portions of tasty Khmer classics served on elegant green dishes mimicking bamboo leaves for a very reasonable price. Unfortunately, Sekong, as yet, has no beer and wine license, so for those jonesing for an Angkor or Tiger beer to accompany their meal, you're out of luck for now. But if the city of Phoenix ever approves the restaurant's use of an already existing outdoor barbecue grill, I've been told there will be even more grilled dishes added to the menu.
Katheaw, a noodle soup that's Cambodian kin to Vietnamese pho, heads the current lineup. On different occasions, I tried both the chicken noodle soup with sliced chicken breast and chunks of chicken meatballs (katheaw saik morn) and the mi keaw noodle, pork dumpling, and shrimp soup. Either could easily have made a meal, perhaps paired with a fresh spring roll stuffed with shrimp or fried egg roll, priced at $2 and $1 each, respectively. The broths of both Sekong dishes differ from pho in that they are lighter and considerably less salty than their Vietnamese counterpart. You can amp up their spice or salt quotient with a squirt of sriracha and hoisin to taste. My only regret was that there weren't enough fresh greens accompanying the soups for me. Besides cilantro, green onions, and mint, I would have loved to see some Thai basil thrown into the mix.
However, my longing for authenticity was slaked by a mound of Sekong's shredded green papaya and carrot salad (bok lahong). Awash in a tangy sweet/sour dressing and topped with fermented, in-shell freshwater crab, it was the real deal.
My dining companions voted the loat cha their pick of the litter. Loat cha is a rice noodle and beef combo, stir-fried with bean sprouts and scallion slivers and enveloped in a perfectly seasoned, slightly sweet sauce redolent with such familiar Southeast Asian flavoring ingredients as ginger, garlic, and lemongrass. Almost translucent, the fat "glass" noodles featured in the dish are, quite simply, addictive. Though my personal pick for fave was the baynchaiv crêpe, the Khmer version of Vietnam's banh xeo, a pancake-like concoction so beloved that entire restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City are dedicated to serving it in unending combinations. Two hefty crêpes to an order, baynchaiv are made from a rice flour and turmeric batter (thus the bright yellow tinge), cooked until lacy, then folded over a filling of crunchy bean sprouts, shrimp, ground pork with a sweet and sour sauce, and onions. Roll up a slab of the crêpe inside a fresh lettuce leaf after adding some cilantro and cucumber slices, and dip the whole thing in the mild fish sauce that comes with — it doesn't get much better than this, though, again more and different greens, like tiá tô (Vietnamese perilla), a strongly aromatic, fuzzy green and purple leaf, would have elevated this dish to near nirvana for me, a hardcore greens freak. But even I understand the essential futility of trying to raise exotic tropical herbs in the godforsaken desert on a regular basis.
One of the few great residuals from the aftermath of France's Indochinese colonization in the 19th century is the baguette sandwich (banh mi in Vietnam, num pang in Cambodia) — and Sekong is not to be dismissed in that arena. Its pâté and pork version, stuffed with slices of pork meatball, cucumber, and sprigs of cilantro, features homemade pickles of spicy, julienned carrot and green papaya, and a schmear of pâté and mayo that gives even Lee's Sandwiches a run for its money.
If you're looking for flashy, fun and flavorful, try the Cambodian Volcano Grill. The communal tabletop grill, as well as its alternative hot pot rendition, is the most expensive item on the menu at $25, but both easily serve between two ravenous people or four of average appetite. Our DIY grill selections included fresh enoki mushrooms, baby bok choy, and shrimp, as well as thin slices of tender beef and squid that tasted like the lost abalone of my youth. Slap some butter on the circular grill before adding your choices — you won't be disappointed.
Who could possibly have room for dessert after a feast like this? We sure didn't on either occasion, since we prematurely stuffed ourselves on savory selections. We were sorely tempted, however, by the sweet-tempura-battered banana and sweet potatoes (jake jien and thraloang jien) that are sold by the piece, coconut jello (jahouy ktheeh), banana tapioca pudding featuring large tapioca pearls and fragrant coconut milk (jake ktheeh), and especially by the grilled corn smothered in a sweet and salty caramel sauce.
For purely equitable reasons, mind you, we'll just have to order dessert first next time and work our way backwards.