Silk Road cocktail | Photo by Sara Crocker
Can a cocktail evoke a sense of place and memory? It’s the ambitious question that underpins the experience at Khla, a new Roosevelt Row-adjacent alley bar fronted by the team that brought Phonecians the playful cocktail-slinging camper Baby Boy.
“At the end of the day, we were chasing childhood ingredients, stuff that we grew up eating that wasn’t as popular then as it is today,” co-owner Tyka Chheng says of the inspiration for the menu while sitting on Khla’s patio.
He, along with co-owners Colton Brock, Jason Harvey and John Sagasta set out to open an Asian bar as their next project. As they focused in on Southeast Asia as their inspiration, it became a much more personal project for Chheng, whose parents hail from Cambodia.
“Now I’m representing not only myself and my business partners but I’m also representing a whole group of people out there in America that feels like they’re being represented,” he says. “Since opening I’ve met so many different Asian Americans here in Phoenix … It’s been eye-opening.”
Khla means tiger in Khmer, the language of Cambodia. 2022 is the year of the tiger, so the namesake was serendipitous – and a nod to the adventure that awaits inside.
“You’re trying so many ingredients that are so unique that you wouldn’t see before, we hope,” Chheng says. “It’s almost like you’re going on an adventure and you’re exploring a new country.”
Tucked into the back of the historical home that formerly housed Character Distinctive Dining, walking into Khla is akin to popping over to a friend’s house for a barbecue and they tell you to just come in through the gate. That’s where the hominess ends. On the surface, the space is moody and sleek. Hidden behind a large wood and iron gate, dark grays and blacks cover the space, punctuated by a warm wood bar inside, swirling murals and a crisscross of white paper lanterns outside. Bollywood-esque posters dot the walls, a nod to the films Chheng’s mother watched when he was a kid.
If Baby Boy is, as the kids say, a vibe, then Khla is a mood – a big mood.
The menu, designed as a nod to Chinese takeout trifolds, sorts cocktails into three areas – refreshing, highballs and spirit-forward – ranging in price from $14-18 per drink. There are the familiar underpinnings of classic cocktails – old fashioned, margarita – and resurging vintage favorites like the painkiller and the espresso martini. But, Khla brings a new point of view and Southeast Asian ingredients, creating craveable drinks that capture the sense memories their team is chasing.
Take Arcade Dreams. Evoking the fizzy fun of a Ramune (a Japanese soda in a glass bottle that holds a marble at the top; when pressed down into the neck it opens the drink with a flash of effervescence), bar manager Dustin Doan combined gin, Midori, dry vermouth, lemon and tonic to create this highball. The result is a sparkly and electric green. The melon of the Midori is accented by a slice of fresh cantaloupe and plays off the botanicals of the gin, the bitterness of the vermouth and the sweet tonic.
As I consider what to order next, Chheng asks me if I’ve had Thai iced tea. I nod, remembering the first time I tried it – earthy, yet sweet; rich and creamy, with a bit of caramel and pepper – and that terracotta color. I order the Silk Road, a cocktail Chheng crafted based on his memories as a kid in boba shops and named for the trade route that stretched from China to Europe. It starts with bourbon infused with Thai tea. To it, Chheng adds Hennessy – for spice and because of its popularity at Asian American backyard parties. Orgeat adds a nutty sweetness. Coconut rum joins in with coconut milk and soy milk, adding tropical flavor and body, but the cocktail is clarified, so despite its silky texture, it has the clarity of an old fashioned. It comes together in a taste that’s familiar, yet brand new. Before the cocktail is poured, the ice block added to the rocks glass is impressed with a brass stamp bearing a tiger – Khla’s logo.
Sharing space with the Thai restaurant Lom Wong, patrons of Khla can try drinking snacks from the main house, including a mystery snack teased as “I’m drunk and I’ll eat anything.”
Thirsty for more?
As we discussed the menu, I was already plotting my return. I’d love to bask in the dusk on the patio with a Days of Thunder – turmeric, Calpico and citrus against raicilla, similar to mezcal and produced in Jalisco with a reliance of ancient Filipino distilling practices. Or skip dessert and opt for a nightcap with a Manila Vice – ube showcasing its distinctive purple color in this painkiller-esque cocktail.
As Chheng reflects on Khla, he says it’s become a deeply personal project.
“In the world of cocktails, this is my passion project, for sure,” Chheng says.
But, he teased that he and his team are just getting started, and that there’s even more coming from them in the future: “If there’s one thing I want to let the rest of our community know, it’s that you haven’t seen everything yet.”
Khla, 218 E. Portland St., Phoenix, khlaphx.com