A year ago, I covered the story of Oliver’s Twist owner Karuna Long, who added his mom’s Cambodian diaspora recipes to his cocktail bar’s menu as a pandemic lockdown pivot. It was a great success, and last spring, Long was dreaming of a way-expanded Cambodian/Khmer menu, limited as he was by OT’s tiny made-for-snacks kitchen. When we last checked in, he was hoping to take over the space up the street at 7314 Greenwood Avenue North (formerly the home of Martino’s, Hecho, and Carmelita). 

After fundraising, Long’s dream, Sophon—which means “beauty” in the Khmer language and is also his mom’s first name—opened to the public on February 1. Long calls his menu “an homage to Khmer cuisine.” Sophon is still in its soft-opening phase, with its final form to follow this spring and summer. But the current mini-menu is pretty much all divas. Like the chicken Khmeraage—kroeung curry-marinated chicken thighs rolled in a potato-cornstarch dredge, deep-fried karaage-style, and served with Kroeung aioli, house chili oil, and lemon. They also do a vegan oyster mushroom version of this that’s every speck as good as the fried chicken. My mom and sister both profess to hate mushrooms and they demolished a whole plate. 

This isn’t even my final form: Still in soft-opening mode, Sophon’s menu is petite for now, with plenty more to come. MEG VAN HUYGEN

The word kroeung, by the way, refers to a spice blend found throughout Cambodia that can vary from household to household but commonly includes dried red chili, lemongrass, makrut lime leaf, galangal, turmeric, garlic, and shallots. Another of Sophon’s dishes that showcases kroeung is the p’set ang, a fragrant stir-fry of trumpet mushrooms, house chili/kroeung oil, shaven toasted coconut, and pea shoots. It’s my go-to dinner lately, always ordered with a (free) side of jasmine rice and a little thingus of spicy, fish-saucey Southeast Asian crack sauce

Everyone in the whole damn neighborhood, meanwhile, is pumped about the glorious return of the kha sach chrouk, which we all know from the old Oliver’s Twist menu: it’s a slab of succulent, fall-apart pork belly, braised low and slow in coconut milk and palm sugar, then caramelized and served alongside sweet onions, bamboo shoots, and a marinated six-minute chicken egg. (I say “chicken egg” because in the traditional Cambodian version, it’s a duck egg, but Long has adapted it for American audiences.) This dish is essentially one of our neighbors, so beloved a character is it around Phinney. Very glad to see it returned from… wherever the hell it’s been. There’s also an eggplant/cauliflower version of this dish for the veggies, speaking of updated adaptations. 

Chef-owner Karuna Long is back in the Khmer life, behind the grill once again. Meg van huygen

Long also includes a nod to his childhood in Long Beach, California, with the sach ko ang Phnom Penh: a grilled 8-ounce coulotte steak, sliced up and adorned with “LBC-style” tuk prahok, a chunky dipping sauce based on fresh herbs, anchovies, and Thai eggplant. When asked to explain what makes it so LBC, Long replies, “Well, the LBC style of tuk prahok is a blend made by LBC refugees.” Long Beach is home to the world’s largest ethnic Cambodian community outside of Cambodia itself, with a population of around 20,000. “There's NO prahok—fermented fish—in the LBC version,” he goes on, “just lemongrass, shallots, Thai eggplants, black olives, pickled jalapenos, lime juice, palm sugar, and anchovies. However, in our version, we take the LBC tapenade and blend it WITH the traditional fermented Phnom Penh-style tuk prahok. So it’s our own unique recipe.”

I’ve been a loudmouthed supporter of Sophon’s not only because—full disclosure—Long became a friend over the months I interviewed him and his marvelous staff at Oliver’s Twist, but also because Seattle doesn’t fucking have this kind of cuisine. Closest city for Cambodian diaspora food is L.A., and even when you find it… it’s a lot of sandwiches, tbh, certainly not fine-ish dining. And yes, of course, Seattle does have a few restaurants that serve Khmer cuisine, and this is not to minimize them—they’re all delicious and lovely and are doing important work in representing the culture locally besides—but they’re preettyyyy traditional. (Understandably so, considering that this culture was nearly decimated within living memory!) It’s not that Sophon’s food is better than traditional Khmer food. It’s that there’s nothing like it in this city. 

What sets Sophon apart from most Cambodian AND Cambodian diaspora spots across the country is its innovative cocktail program. Long is a checkered alum of the Seattle bar industry and was named Seattle’s Favorite Bartender by The Stranger in 2018—but he’s the chef now. Instead, at the helm of Sophon’s bar program is Dakota Etley, who spent the last year at the venerated Rumba. Sophon’s cocktail list does an expert job of utilizing Southeast Asian flavors—either subtly, like the Srasa (“Fresh”), made with tequila, super pomelo, sawtooth coriander, Montenegro, and aloe-based Chareau—or brazenly, like the Mekong, made with a rum blend, both ripe AND green mango, a housemade roasted peanut/fish sauce orgeat, and coconut cream. 

It’s an album of all hits, and every last drink is in my personal rotation. But my favorite drink in the bunch doesn’t have much to do with Southeast Asia at all.

It ain’t gonna slide down easy if it ain’t cheesy: Beverage director Dakota Etley gets started on a new batch of brie-washed rye, pictured just before he chops the cheese up and Sonicates the living shit out of it. MEG VAN HUYGEN

Khlang means “strength” in the Khmer language, and that’s no coincidence because this thing is all fuckin’ booze. To make a Khlang, one begins with brie fat-washed rye and adds to it nocino, alongside Cocchi di Torino sweet vermouth and a housemade squash tincture. The alchemical result drinks a lot like a Manhattan, except much richer. The rye is James E. Pepper 1776, and It’s got some power behind it, bringing oak, honey, clove, and pineapple… before it’s imbued with cheese, that is. The finished drink evokes the caramel sauce on a British toffee pudding, with the walnut from the nocino and butter from the brie toning down the sharpness of its overall Manhattan-ness. It tastes so round! 

It smells terrific too, and more than two of them will, as my dad liked to say, “put you on your lips.” Strength, indeed.

Gee, your drink smells terrific. Also, eee, the pretty glass. MEG VAN HUYGEN

Etley explains the concoction step by step as he makes me a freshie. “At the forefront, the essence of the cocktail is the brie flavor. It’s a brie-washed rye, and we wash it ourselves, using a machine called the Sonicator.” He gestures toward an open-top blender-looking thing. “It uses sound waves to disrupt the molecular structure of whatever’s going into it, which makes for super rapid emulsion, a really quick infusion. it’s really, really good at extracting flavors. So we noticed that cheesy note permeated the rye after only about ten minutes in the Sonicator.”

The rye is sufficiently cheesed up after a 12-hour sit in the freezer to fat-wash it. Etley says, “The reason we use the freezer is because, when the fats heat up at all and you’re straining it, the fat slips through the strainer, and then your drink is oily. You want the fat solids to stay behind so you can strain them out, for clarity’s sake.”

The Cocchi Vermouth di Torino is a little more robust, more bitter than other sweet vermouths. I always taste cocoa and orange in this one. Nocino, made from unripe walnuts, imparts some sugar and some mouthfeel. What’s up with the mystery ingredient, though? The menu calls it “Johnny’s squash tincture.” 

“Well!” Etley begins. “My very good friend and an amazing bartender up in Bellingham, Johnny Stephens, is the namesake on our squash tincture. Johnny once did a seasonal menu at the bar we worked at, and they came up with a Toki Highball riff with squash and ground cherry, and it was a huge hit. So they just started making that squash tincture every fall. It’s super simple: you combine cinnamon, delicata squash, and Everclear, and you let it sit for thirty days. And you strain it. That’s it.” He gives me a little taste of the tincture by itself—the squash is super present, kind of funky, butternutty, sherry-like. “So we just use a bar spoon of it in the cocktail, to give it a little more intensity, and, well, strength.”

Etley waives off any praise for his delicious invention. “It’s just luck,” he insists. “This whole project has all been a big learning process, and I’m so lucky to be able to learn from people who have experiences with processes I don’t.” He also largely refuses credit for Sophon’s compelling  cocktails, stressing that he worked extensively with the teams at both Sophon and Oliver’s Twist to produce it, as a huge, two-bar jam sesh. “When Karuna brought me on as beverage director, sure, a lot of it was just me brainstorming stuff. But it’s been a gigantic collaborative effort in the end. Everyone here deserves credit, not solely me! When we do R&D, we have the servers try it, the kitchen staff try it, just to make sure we’re getting plenty of opinions. And Henry also has his own cocktails on the menu too.“ 

Etley refers to Henry Montgomery, who’s running the bar down the block at Oliver’s Twist. Henry came up with the Haal, which means ‘spicy, using sesame oil-washed arrack, Jamaican rum, lime, Thai chili, and fish sauce.

The Khlang—with brie-washed rye, walnut-based nocino, orange/chocolatey Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, and a housemade squash tincture—drinks like a Manhattan, while under the ikat textile canopy, it feels like you’re in Battambang. It’s a Manhattambang. Okay, thanks, that’s my joke. MEG VAN HUYGEN

The Khlang’s been flying off the shelves since Sophon opened, and man, I always hate to love the popular thing, but I’m just besotted by it. I love this drink ardently and think about it all day long. More than twice, I’ve sat at the bar and texted people about it to make them jealous because I have a Khlang and they do not—and try to get them to come join me and have a Khlang… party. A Khlang-bang.

Etley and Long are basically tied for world champion when it comes to grand expressions of humility and gratefulness. They’re like a couple of those Spidermens pointing at each other whenever someone tries to say their restaurant is awesome and they did a great job. Amid this, Long does shyly sing the praises of their bar program and admit that he hopes folks will think of Sophon as a cocktail bar as much as a dinner spot, since the plan is to keep the bar open after the kitchen closes. Then he immediately slings it back to Etley:

“I just really honestly appreciate the amount of thought and care Dakota has put into this program. For someone who didn’t know anything about Khmer culture, he delved in deep! He literally took time out of his own life to dig in and understand the culture, the history of the Khmer Empire, the flavor profiles—even the names of the drinks in Khmer, that was Dakota. That kind of dedication is rare to find!”

At a month old, Sophon is only just ramping up to tell Seattle the beautiful and tragic story of Cambodia—a nation that’s suffered through colonization and occupation, several consecutive wars, a great famine, and the often glossed-over genocide of millions, many of whom were murdered directly by the Nixon administration—through its gorgeous cuisine. I cry a little baby tear when I pass by Sophon sometimes. It exists. They actually made it. It’s a restaurant that’s also a museum, where people can go in it and see and meet, eat and understand. Long, Etley, and their brilliant staff are only getting started. I’ll see you at the bar. 

Oliver's Twist chef Darwin Chaisy serenades beverage director Dakota Etley with some Smiths at Sophon after hours. Meg Van Huygen