The Stupendous Cambodian Soups of Reathrey Sekong in Phoenix

Cambodian pineapple soupEXPAND
Cambodian pineapple soup
Chris Malloy
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My first beef with the city of Phoenix has started. My problem isn’t the city's lack of public transportation, Italian bakeries, snow, or recycling. It’s that Reathrey Sekong, a flavor-wired little Cambodian restaurant on Indian School, could be so empty at lunch.

Reathrey Sekong is a perfect lunch spot. I know because I ate there three times last week.

The restaurant’s better soups are straight up stupendous They're like nothing I’ve eaten before. I would share some intel on the place's other food, like num pang Cambodian sandwiches, but my first soup lunch was so good that I ordered soup the next two times.

Asia makes the world’s best soups. Within Asia, I would argue that Southeast Asia is soup king. Thailand’s hot-and-sour tom yum soup, coconut-based tom kha gai soup, and arsenal of blazing curries are the apex of soup gastronomy. Many an eater has overdosed on Vietnam’s pho in the last five years. Burmese chicken soup is the best chicken soup I’ve tasted. Reathrey Sekong, this mostly empty spot in the middle of town, simmers a few Cambodian bowls that can hang with these Southeast Asian staples.

The first Reathrey Sekong soup I tried was a pineapple soup. In the wild ballet of exotic flavors, pineapple, basil, and tamarind sweetness took center stage. Fish and fried garlic flavors edged in more faintly, not apparent until the third or fourth sip, once you've started to mentally unwrap what you’re slurping.

Chunks of pineapple, yellow squash, tomato, and willowy lotus roots float in the soup, each bearing a degree of sweetness. To have soup so sweet for lunch is strange (to me). But the broth was light and balanced; royal basil and garlic edited its flavor so deftly that the sweet accent didn’t seem odd at all.

The soup also has a faint perfume of whitefish. That’s because  alabaster chunks of catfish — perfectly cooked — lurk below the fruits and vegetables on the surface. The catfish is delicate, just-cooked, barely flaky, and damn satisfying.

Where Reathrey Sekong’s pineapple soup brings finesse, its lemongrass soup brings thunder.

Soulful and thick with coconut milk, this soup, too, fires on every taste sensation. The soup is lemongrass tang and tropical spirit full bore, the essence of the yellow stalk channeled fully. You can see splinters of lemongrass floating in the broth. Eggplant wedges bob. Sliced celery floats. The sweet-and-sour depths reminds me of tom yum, but this soup is intenser, creamier, sweeter, and better. A touch of prahook, fermented fish paste, lends a scintilla of funk you don't even notice until you ask what prahook is.

Noodle soups almost identical to pho fill a section of the menu. I tried the Phnom Penh version. A softball-sized knot of rice noodles fills most of the bowl. Also present was pork in ground, intestine, liver, and heart forms, as well as shrimp. A jolt of hot sauce elevated the mild soup, but not to the lofty level of the other two.

Reathrey Sekong serves a fourth soup. The menu pitches it as a milder curry. I haven’t gotten to this one yet. If you head over for lunch or dinner, let me know what you think.

Reathrey Sekong. 1312 East Indian School Road; 480-238-0238.
Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Sunday.

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