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Rice, Pork Belly, and Rock ’n’ Roll

Oakland’s Nite Yun brings Cambodian food into the limelight.

SLIDESHOW

Kuy teav, a rice noodle soup, at Nyum Bai.

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Koh, or caramelized pork belly.

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Chef-owner Nite Yun presides over the kitchen.

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A family-style spread, clockwise from left: banana blossom salad, caramelized pork belly, machoo kroeung soup, and steamed fish custard.

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It’s two hours before dinner service at Nyum Bai, a tiny slip of a Cambodian eatery in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, and everything is frenetic in the way the second day of a restaurant’s soft opening tends to be. A cook has just texted to say he can’t work the grand opening, only one night away, and the meat guy still hasn’t dropped off his delivery for the day. A big pot of orange-brown prahok ktiss, a classic Cambodian pork dip, bubbles away on the stove top, and the smell of lemongrass and fish sauce hangs heavy in the air.

Her hair tucked neatly inside a baseball cap, Nite Yun, the 35-year-old chef and owner, still has a dozen-odd tasks she needs to get through. But her feelings about her newly launched restaurant are unequivocal: “It’s almost too perfect,” she says.

Two years ago, when Nyum Bai was just an occasional pop-up, Yun would tell people that her ultimate goal was to open a cozy diner somewhere in Oakland—a funky spot where she could blast ’60s Cambodian psychedelic rock and do justice to the home-style dishes she grew up eating. While Nyum Bai’s subsequent yearlong stint at an Emeryville food court introduced diners to the pleasures of Cambodian street food, the new restaurant is the full-on realization of Yun’s dream, down to the bright pink-and-turquoise color scheme and vintage Sinn Sisamouth album covers on the walls.

It’s these personal touchstones of Cambodian culture—as opposed to the usual historicized ones involving Angkor Wat or the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge—that Yun has long wanted to expose to a wider audience. Yun spent the first two years of her life at a refugee camp in Thailand and continued to speak Khmer at home after her family settled in California’s Central Valley, in Stockton, when she was a toddler. But she really started to fall in love with her culture during extended trips to her native country when she was in her 20s. There, Yun’s relatives told her stories about her parents’ resilience in the face of long suffering—about how at one point, to hide from the Khmer Rouge, her 22-year-old mother had been wrapped up inside a straw mat, like a burrito. “Everyone there is so humble,” Yun says. “‘Oh yeah, we fled land mines, and we starved in the field for 10 days. But no big deal.’”

The lessons Yun learned weren’t all as heavy as that, though. She got turned on to the rock ’n’ roll scene that swept through Cambodia during the ’50s and ’60s, when cities like Phnom Penh were vibrant artistic hubs. And she kept discovering more and more to love about Cambodian food. Over the years, Yun’s mother had taught her how to cook traditional dishes, so Yun started thinking about how she might showcase what she believed to be one of the great cuisines of Southeast Asia. In 2014, Yun, who now lives in West Oakland, started Nyum Bai as a series of pop-ups, then did a stint at La Cocina’s kitchen incubator. She caught her first big break when Emeryville’s Public Market signed her on last year. All told, it has been a swift ascent.

The foundations of the cuisine, Yun explains, are a lemongrass- and galangal-intensive herb paste called kroeung—which Cambodian cooks use the way the French use mirepoix—and prahok, a pungent fermented fish paste. In a typical Cambodian meal, everyone sits on the floor and all the dishes are laid out at once on a newspaper or a straw mat. There might be a soup and a meat dish or a plate of grilled fish, served with pickled green mango. Often there will be raw vegetables eaten with a dip made by simmering kroeung, prahok, coconut milk, and minced pork belly. Always—always—there are big bowls of jasmine rice.

At the new incarnation of Nyum Bai, lunch is mostly focused on the street food dishes Yun specialized in when she was constrained to a food-court-kiosk kitchen. Dinnertime, however, is an opportunity to experience the kind of quintessential home-style Cambodian meal Yun describes (minus the part where you sit on the floor). The aforementioned pork dip has a Bolo­gnese-like texture and arrives at the table warm, exceedingly fragrant, and accompanied by raw and steamed vegetables. The amok, a fish custard that’s steamed inside a banana leaf, is delicate and rich. The koh, a saucy caramelized-pork-belly dish, is cooked until the meat is so tender you can cut it with a spoon. And the machoo kroeung, a sparerib soup that Yun most associates with her childhood, is an intense pop of flavors—tangy, spicy, funky, and pleasantly bitter. Fittingly for a restaurant whose name translates as “eat rice,” everything goes so well with steamed jasmine rice that you should order one or two extra rounds. 

All the while, Cambodian rock plays over the speakers—part Beach Boys, part Frank Sinatra, all infectiously groovy. Yun makes her way around the crowded dining room, pausing to greet familiar faces. There’s no time, though, to soak in the realization of this long-held dream, not with a brand-new restaurant to keep afloat and Cambodian New Year just around the corner in mid-April—and with it a host of special dishes that she’ll need to prepare. “It’s our New Year,” Yun says. “So it’s going to be big. It’s going to be fun.”  

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco 

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