When COVID-19 measures shuttered Oliver’s Twist temporarily in March, owner Karuna Long feared for how he could keep the Phinney Ridge neighborhood bar, beloved for its solid cocktails and snacky menu, afloat. Takeout cocktails weren’t yet legal and, as Long put it, “It’s hard to compete with a legit restaurant selling bacon-stuffed dates.”
Long purchased the bar from its original owners in 2017, when the message from the community came through loud and clear: don’t change anything, and especially keep the garlic truffle popcorn on the menu. But when the pandemic hit, he took a step back to assess the situation, and called a meeting with longtime regulars and trusted staff. “It was therapeutic to hear many different ideas I couldn’t have explored with all the stress,” he says.
Three months later, the bar’s COVID-19 pivot to serving the food of Long’s Cambodian heritage has neighbors swooning over kroeung and the owner dreaming of expansion.
Kroeung, a spice mix usually made with a mortar and pestle, shows up over and over on the cocktail bar’s new Khmer menu. Long mixes aromatics like lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, lime peels, Kampot pepper, raw honey, palm sugar, and shallots as a base, then tweaks it with additional ingredients depending on the application. For beef, like the short ribs he serves in a rice bowl, he adds red chilies that are similar to guajillo peppers.
Until the recent re-opening of Phnom Penh Noodle House, nobody else was serving Khmer food in Seattle. But the flavors on Long’s menu of spring rolls, rice bowls with kroeung-marinated proteins, curries, and vermicelli noodle bowls, drew customers, and the format made a better set up for Long than trying to make a living on takeout bar snacks.
Long quickly faced the challenges that he knew would come up from his previous experience running Cambodian pop-ups — like a Cambodian Easter one at Oliver’s Twist last year. “The kitchen was the trickiest part,” he says. “It’s a smaller space than a food truck,” and structural elements prevent them from moving appliances.
Without guests dining in, though, the staff can make it work because they have time on their side: customers aren’t sitting impatiently waiting, but arriving at a scheduled time, so tasks that might traditionally be done simultaneously can be done sequentially. Long also went from having just a few purveyors to needing to order ingredients from new distributors and coordinate multiple deliveries. But he did have a little help.
Before re-opening the bar, Long spent a few weeks at home with his mother and his brothers, who just moved back to the Seattle area from Georgia. His brothers have long wanted their mother to open a restaurant, and her recipes drive the menu. But while she stops by to watch them work and help make twa-ko (fermented sausage), Long and his brother, Routhana (Long’s sous chef), do most of the cooking.
As a kid, Long says he was always the one dragging his feet when it came to cooking with his mom, so he never imagined opening a restaurant. “When you’re a teenager, you don’t appreciate it,” he says of the time with his family. “As you get older, you look at the lineage, the history, the culture.”
Now, he sees this as an opportunity “to have that dialogue with a lot of our regulars, with a lot of my close friends that still are learning what Cambodian food is.”
Part of Long’s journey in pivoting the restaurant has included figuring out how he wants to tell the story of Khmer food, especially since few Seattleites know much about it. It shares similarity with cuisines that are more common in Seattle, such as Vietnamese or Thai (Long says his family actually has some Vietnamese lineage), but Long describes the flavors as more robust, owing to the use of bright citrus and ginger. There’s a reliance on spices, due to the Indian influence on Khmer culture — he points to his name as evidence, which comes from the Sanskrit for compassion — including cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, and turmeric. Finally, he says the cuisine is more “rustic and hearty,” owing to “the Khmer people’s obsession with dried fish, dried shrimp, and fermented shrimp and fish pastes, like prahok.”
Long plans to add what he calls “more personal dishes,” to the menu in the future, though he admits that he and his brothers worried that people would be afraid of more pungent flavors, like prahok, which adds much of the umami into Khmer dishes. “I’m slowly creating a dialogue that I never realized I wanted,” says Long.
The positive responses he has gotten so far to the Cambodian menu have inspired him to push forward, thinking about how he can keep Khmer food on the menu when he reopens the dining room, and if he could expand to a nearby space and set his mom up with her own kitchen. He is seizing the moment, hoping to start a blog and Instagram about Khmer food (one can find him at Cooking With Karuna), using his communication skills honed in bartending to teach folks Khmer cooking as he talks about his family history.
A fitting combination, since the heart of Long’s new version of the business is that intersection of food and family. His brothers, he says, have always wanted their mom to open her own shop, so it’s been important to them that she has seen how well they are doing using the skills and recipes they learned from her.
“That’s the biggest gratification,” says Long. “Knowing that the more this becomes successful, the more my mom is secretly proud that there’s representation of her food, that it’s impactful on our lives and on other people.”