Sok Sab Bai's Cambodian Flair

A Clinton neighborhood newcomer brings fresh flavors from former food cart chefs.

By Benjamin Tepler July 1, 2013 Published in the July 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

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Amok tray (Cambodian national dish)

Steps away from St. Jack on SE 21st Avenue, a pop of aromatic spices, fish sauce funk, and charcoal-grilled meats perfumes the porch of a Craftsman duplex. The first sniff suggests a Vietnamese café or yet another Thai restaurant. Inhale more deeply, beyond the lemongrass and chile heat, to discover a cuisine deep in freshwater fish, fruit, kroeung, and gingery galangal root. Welcome to Sok Sab Bai, a Cambodian spot with a fresh perspective on Southeast Asian cuisine. 

Food cart dreamers Nyno Thol and Tina Sanchez built a following from the pavement with a rare taste of Cambodia’s heady soups, bahn mi–style sandwiches, and sweet pork stews. Now, the unfailingly upbeat duo is embracing Khmer heritage and modern twists inside the converted 45-seat dining room. As the kitchen perfects former food cart favorites like glazed pork belly buns, it now also nails more composed plates like amok trey—catfish custard wrapped in banana leaf. 

Unlike the laminated encyclopedias often found in Portland’s Thai and Vietnamese eateries, Sok Sab Bai’s menu delivers a tight list of starters: grilled oysters in a swim of citrus fish sauce; crisp, golden palm sugar–glazed wings; a handful of soups and curries built on restorative chicken broths. The whole menu warrants thorough exploration, but the khwa ko sausage demands attention: a fat link stuffed with garlic, galangal, beef, and rice, aged up to four days, sliced like an accordion, and charred until crispy. Served over rice and spicy house-pickled mustard greens and jalapeños, it arrives like a hot dog from heaven with a sour, fermented edge and elastic snap. 

Sok Sab Bai is young, testing the waters and working out service kinks. But after two years of street-honed flavors, it’s off to a promising start. If its growing fan base is any indication, Cambodian cuisine may be poised for a takeover.

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