Chef Phila Lorn is a Philadelphia prince of Cambodian cuisine, a local who surely grew up with fish amok, char siu, duck meat, num Banh Chok and kroeung paste.
Having spoken to him back in September (cooking for a benefit at Stina), I know that Chef Phila Lorn and his wife were having a baby – a boy they’d name Otis after Redding – that Lorn was cooking as a Sous Chef at Terrain in Glenside, and that he and his fam were planning a noodle bar in South Philly serving a Cambodian food and drink menu reflective of traditional FDR Khmer food culture. Just like he did at the Stina benefit for Cambodian American Girls Empowering (CAGE), Lorn’s upcoming restaurant, then a secret location, would showcase the food that he grew up eating every Sunday at his mother’s house on 4th and McKean.
Things have changed since September. Not only did Lorn tell me where his upcoming new space would land – the 1700 block of West Passyunk – Chef Phila also became part of Chef Jose Garces’ Chef in Residency Program at Volvér on Broad Street’s Kimmel Cultural Campus.
Featured at Garces’ Kimmel Center-located restaurant from December 1 until January 17 as part of Volvér’s on-going series dedicated to hype-up rising star minority chefs with a focus on Black, Brown, LGBTQ and Female chefs impacted by the pandemic, Lorn is hanging with Garces and seeking cash to open his first restaurant showcasing Cambodian food, music and culture with generous helpings of Pleah, Roasted Hamachi Collar, Mawn ‘Pho Don’ and more.
During an intimate press gathering for the Lorn/Garces Residency, dosage MAGAZINE and I had a chance to test run a handful of Chef Phila dishes for the occasion, along with cocktails specially prepared for the event such as the cleverly titled “Phila” Butter and Jelly. Here, a crisp dried banana is set in a generous pour of peanut butter-infused rum, Bonato aperitif and St. George Raspberry liqueur for a spicy, fruity start to a light, yet hearty meal.
Starting with the green papaya salad of Katsuobushi, with Cambodian mint, Bird’s Eye chili, fish sauce and finely chopped roasted peanuts, tricks get played with your mouth when it came to textures and temperatures, from sweet to sour to hot and zesty. The crab summer rolls with spicy peanut sauces, filled with lump crab, carrots and cucumber, were a chilled and mellow delight despite the hint of jalapeno. The shrimp toast appetizer was like no shrimp toast I’ve witnessed previously – plump as it was with sesame, scallion and Karashi mayo.
The main event, the steak and chimichurri entrée, was an amusing mash of finely chopped New York Strip loin Prahok chimichurri and sticky rice you wanted more of as soon as the last bite was swallowed. So good. End that with pillowy beignets with sweet milk coffee, black sesame and macerated bananas, and you’re dreaming of what Chef Lorn will dream up next for his West Passyunk Avenue joint.