Around the corner from St. Jack on SE Clinton, from the porch of a craftsman duplex, unfamiliar smells lure with a heady mix of turmeric, fish sauce funk and charcoal-grilled meats. The first sniff suggests a Vietnamese cafe or maybe yet another Portland Thai restaurant. But this is Sok Sab Bai, a newly opened Cambodian spot with finesse and accessibility, and one of the year’s most exciting food cart-to-brick-and-mortar transformations.
Chef Nyno Thol and his partner Tina Sanchez made the move from food cart to the 45-seat brick-and-mortar earlier this month after two years on the mobile circuit. Thol’s family of Cambodian refugees is his source of culinary inspiration. At the new space, a cute converted residential craftsman with violet walls, Thol’s mother and sister still school him on the finer points of the Southeast Asian cookery while a Cambodian community elder cures his sausages.
Cambodian cuisine has many of the same elements as its Vietnamese and Thai neighbors: fish sauce, lemon grass, and chile heat, but with an emphasis on freshwater fish, fresh vegetables and fruit, and a fully loaded spice cabinet (note the heavy use of kroeung, a ubiquitous galangal and turmeric-laden spice paste).
Sok Sab Bai’s menu is a smattering of traditional Cambodian dishes and accessible starters. You’ll find fatty wedges of glazed pork belly and spicy house-brined pickles in sweet, fluffy buns alongside trays of crisp, golden palm sugar-glazed wings. Soups and curries are built on restorative broths, like the ka thiew (noodle soup), served as a hangover cure on Sundays and steeped with pork neck, beef ribs, and hard-boiled quail eggs. The condiment of choice is an addictive dipping sauce of fish sauce, lime juice, and garlic that comes in to-go bottles with the label: “Da Sauce.”
A few standouts lead the pack. In the amok trey, Cambodia’s “national dish,” a bamboo steamer holds a banana leaf-wrapped package of catfish cooked in an eggy coconut milk custard and kroeung spices. Fresh vegetables from Chinese eggplant to wedges of red cabbage anoint the centerpiece for dipping. Take the plunge. Khwa ko (Cambodian sausage) is stuffed with garlic, galangal, ginger, beef, and rice, cured for four days, sliced like an accordion, and charred to a crisp. It tastes like a hot dog out of heaven with a sour fermented edge and elastic snap.
Sok Sab Bai is still young, testing the waters with its balance of traditional Cambodian flavors and Portland’s taste buds. But with two years of honing flavors already under their belt, a team of talented Cambodian palates in the kitchen, and a summery outdoor porch, it’s a promising new addition to the city’s ethnic offerings.
Sok Sab Bai
2625 SE 21st Ave
Mon-Sat, 11am to 9am; Sunday, 11am-8pm