Critic’s Notebook offers a peek into the food diary of The Arizona Republic’s dining critic Andi Berlin for the inside track on the best bites in the Valley.
I’ve been obsessing over Cambodian food all week after an exhilarating lunch of short tubular beef noodles and a Khmer delicacy called fish amok, which is essentially an eggy seafood curry that’s steamed in a banana leaf.
After that mind-blowing meal, I stuck to the classics with a sophisticated take on spaghetti and meatballs on Camelback and a big old bowl of tonkotsu, the king of ramen. This particular one was made with a 20-hour braised pork broth.
Yes, I ate a lot of noodles. But that’s not all these dishes had in common. Every one of them was too good not to share. Here are the best things I ate this week.
Fish amok at Reathrey Sekong
Call this the quiche of Cambodia. Prized for its silken eggy texture, fish amok ($15) is a fragrant soufflé that was a specialty of imperial Khmer royalty. With one glance at the intricate banana leaf bundle, you can see why it’s worthy of being Cambodia’s national dish.
At Reathrey Sekong, they layer an egg, some spinach and kale and chunks of mild white fish in a rich turmeric curry with a float of sweet coconut milk over the top. The dish is then wrapped in banana leaf and steamed for 20 minutes until it becomes custardy and can be scooped up with a spoon. My server recommended I eat it with white rice, which mellows out the more intense fish notes. The rice also soaked up the pool of coconut milk that formed around your spoon every time I dug in. I’ve never tasted anything like fish amok. It’s a dish that opened my eyes to the eclectic world of Cambodian cuisine and left me hungry to learn more.
Details: 1312 E. Indian School Road, Phoenix. 602-451-9792, facebook.com/Reathrey-Sekong-Cambodian-Cuisine-133199290086725.
Spaghetti and meatballs at The Parlor
Sometimes you just want a plate of spaghetti and nothing else will do. So this week, when I reached into the cupboard and found there wasn’t any sauce, I headed to the bar of The Parlor, an upscale pizza parlor on Camelback, and ordered a plate of spaghetti and meatballs ($17).
I settled in, swishing around a glass of California zinfandel as I watched the bartender stir two drinks at a time. The dish arrived. A restrained dollop of spaghetti is plated in the center of a large white bowl. The Parlor prepares their pasta from scratch, which gave the spaghetti noodles a springiness that you just can’t attain with dried pasta. Rather than being sweet and saucy, the tomatoes had a deep roasted flavor that dominated. And the four dainty meatballs on top were rich and porky, bound together with milky breadcrumbs. It was worlds away from the plentiful portions at most Italian American restaurants, but just as satisfying.
Details: 1916 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix. 602-248-2480, theparlor.us.
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Tonkotsu ramen from Nishikawa Ramen
After a long week, I was craving the comforting combination of ramen and a beer. Nishikawa Ramen, a laid-back noodle house, seemed like a safe bet. I test ramen houses based on one dish: the powerful, pork-based tonkotsu broth. Nishikawa’s tonkotsu ($9.95) was a milky orange broth with just a touch of chile spice. It comes with straight noodles, but the server told me I could substitute thicker, curly ramen noodles, which I usually prefer because they’re more substantial and soak up the sauce well. The steaming bowl arrived with a fatty slice of pork floating in the broth. It broke apart into juicy chunks when I forked it. I stirred around the smattering of earthy wood ear mushrooms and scooped up the soft-boiled egg, which was served split in half to showcase its custardy yolk. Along with my Asahi beer, it was the perfect ending to a phenomenal week of Phoenix dining.
Details: Two locations 3141 E. Indian School Road, suite 110, Phoenix; 602-368-8774. 1909 E. Ray Road, Chandler. 480-306-6349. nishikawa-ramen.com.
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