From the soft sweetness of pandan to the earthy pungence of turmeric, Southeast Asian flavors shine at Khla, a new downtown Phoenix cocktail bar in Roosevelt Row.
“Knowing myself, I’m always going to put my culture on the map whenever I have the opportunity to do so,” said Tyka Chheng, co-owner of the bar, which shares space with newly opened Thai restaurant Lom Wong.
Khla, which means tiger in Khmer, is the latest project from Chheng, Colton Brock and John Sagasta, the team behind Baby Boy, a cocktail caravan parked nearby at the Pemberton. Chheng and Brock honed their bartending skills at restaurants around the Valley and Sagasta, a fixture in the downtown Phoenix dining scene, is the owner of Jobot Coffee & Bar.
Chheng moved to Phoenix in 2013 to cook at restaurants, but said he became disillusioned with the ego-driven kitchens of high-end restaurants. He became interested in mixing cocktails after a two-week bartending gig at Binkley’s and later went on to work as a bartender at Gallo Blanco, UnderTow and The Highball in Phoenix before starting Baby Boy.
“I say, and I can speak for a lot of bartenders, a little bit of our past always finds a way into the menu,” Chheng said. “There’s a little piece of every coworker I’ve worked with in the menu, grabbing palettes from different people I worked with in the past.”
Cocktails with a personal story
Chheng, who spearheaded Khla’s cocktail program, told The Arizona Republic he wanted to create a menu influenced by his personal history. The 31-year-old was born to refugee parents in Long Beach, California, a city with one of the oldest and largest Cambodian communities in the country. He grew up in multicultural South L.A. and spent his childhood working in his parents’ doughnut shop, as well as a Cambodian-Chinese restaurant. His family also made breakfast burritos in Yuma for a period of time.
“Asian is not just one type of Asian,” Chheng said. “There are different styles out there. I just want to share my experiences, growing up in L.A., in a melting pot, meeting a lot of different people.”
The menu at Khla reflects a variety of Southeast and East Asian ingredients — from matcha to galangal-infused honey — that reflect the diversity of the Asian diaspora, Chheng said.
Chheng brought on Dustin Doan as the bar manager. Doan got his industry start as a bar back at Little Rituals in Phoenix. The son of Vietnamese refugees, he grew up in Gilbert where he said his family assimilated. Now as an adult, he’s trying to get in touch with his family’s roots, which feel “a little bit lost” to him.
Doan initially started making cocktails in his mid-20s to impress a woman.
“She was really into cocktails,” Doan said. “She was like, ‘You should try a negroni.’ I did and I hated it. I figured there must be a reason why so many people love cocktails so I drank them until I liked them.”
Chheng said he recognizes the significance of being an Asian American with the opportunity to open a bar like this in downtown Phoenix. Khla joins a handful of new Southeast Asian businesses that began operating recently in Roosevelt Row, like Lom Wong, Toduken and NamPik, that all have Asian American chefs and owners at the helm.
With Khla it feels personal, Chheng said. Anyone can throw money at a concept, but this is different from a business that appropriates and capitalizes off aspects of Asian culture just “because it’s hot right now,” he said.
“It comes from a story, it comes from trying my best to explain my ancestry and drive creativity from there, the hardships and love and sincerity that my parents developed in me. … I’m getting a lot of this creativity from my past and lineage all the way.”
Neighbors:Take an eclectic tour of Thailand at Lom Wong restaurant in downtown Phoenix
What’s on the menu at this downtown Phoenix bar?
Khla’s paper menu is designed to look like a Chinese restaurant takeout menu. Drinks are divided into three sections: Refreshing, Highballs and Spirit Forward.
Before settling on the name Khla, the bar was originally going to be named after one of the highballs, the Tiger Jaw. The cocktail features chrysanthemum-infused cachaça (a Brazilian spirit made from fermented sugarcane juice), Cocchi Americano, passion fruit, lemon and a mix soda and tonic water.
Chheng described chrysanthemum tea, found in plastic jugs at the grocery store, is a refreshing drink from his childhood. He wanted to draw from those herbaceous and sweet notes for the cocktail.
Doan said he’s excited about the Saigon Sour, a daiquiri riff that uses a pineapple-based unami sauce, which is like a vegan fish sauce. White rum, tamarind, pineapple and a sudachi citrus blend round out the other ingredients in the cocktail.
People might already be familiar with the Manila Vice, which has popped up at Baby Boy on occasion. The purple cocktail features Filipino rum, dark Jamaican rum, ube, coconut, calamansi, orange and pineapple.
Filipino rum-making techniques date back to the period of Spanish colonization, when the Spaniards recruited Chinese immigrants for skilled labor, Chheng said. Immigrants then introduced ancient Chinese distillation methods, as the story goes.
Hennessy — the cognac found at many Cambodian, Vietnamese and Lao family parties in the U.S. — makes an appearance on the menu. The Silk Road cocktail features Thai-infused bourbon, Hennessy V.S. coconut rum, orgeat, coconut milk and soy milk.
Lom Wong, the restaurant in front of the bar, will be providing the “kin lao kin len,” Thai drinking foods. Bar bites may include Won Pen’s fried chicken, green mango salad and khanom jeeb, the Thai interpretation of siu mai. Other snack possibilities are chicharrones with a northern Thai green chile sauce called nam prik num, as well as peanuts tossed in lime leaves, lime zest, Thai chilies, sugar and salt.
“It sort of celebrates a little bit of what Southeast Asian culture is, where there’s food that evolved around the drinking,” Chheng said. “That’s big in our community. We snack throughout the night and call it drinking food.”
Khla is scheduled to open on the evening of March 10.
Details: 218 E. Portland St., Phoenix. instagram.com/khlaphx.
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