At a time when many people are craving novelty, Sunshine Noodles, a Cambodian lunch spot, wants to offer something new: a contemporary, creative Cambodian eatery designed for takeout and socially distanced outdoor dining.
Sunshine Noodles, the brainchild of chef Diane Lam (former chef de cuisine at Revelry) and David Sigal (from Chinese pop-up Mian) opened on July 2 for a five-month “residency,” as Lam calls it, which ends in January 2021. The residency takes place on the patio of Psychic Bar, a Victorian-house-turned-bar in North Portland. Lam also operated a pop-up by the same name last fall.
Sunshine Noodles joins the Portland area’s small Cambodian restaurant scene, which up until now has focused primarily on traditional dishes—Lam cites Mekong Bistro as an example, which serves well-known dishes like amok, or steamed fish in coconut milk. Lam, on the other hand, offers a contemporary yet homestyle take on Cambodian cuisine, one that’s equal parts family history and equal parts who she is today. Lam grew up in Southern California eating her grandmother’s cooking, which was inspired by the melánge of cuisines her grandmother ate in Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge.
“She was a pretty wealthy woman, and then with the Khmer Rouge coming in, she basically lost everything,” Lam explains. Before the totalitarian regime suppressed the influence of foreign cultures, Lam says her grandmother ate all kinds of food—none of which she had to cook herself due to her social status. “She was exposed to Chinese food, Vietnamese food, French food—and so when it came time for her to...cook for her family for the first time, she discovered that she was a natural-born cook.”
One dish on the menu draws inspiration directly from a homestyle dish Lam’s grandmother used to make: thick, handmade spelt noodles served with French-style vegan tomato and maitake mushroom ragout, sprinkled with Maggi seasoning. Lam also makes some of the more traditional Cambodian dishes you’d normally find in restaurants, like kuy teav Phnom Penh—a noodle dish that she serves without broth during the summer, and plans to serve as a soup during the winter—and somlaw machou, a spicy tamarind seafood soup with rice noodles. Also on the menu (and perfect for summer) is Cambodian grilled corn with coconut milk glaze.
The ever-changing menu has also featured some playful, contemporary dishes inspired by Sigal, like potato chip salad with grilled cabbage, wasabi ranch dressing, and candied cashews, and chile relleno banh xeo. They’re dishes that might not seem Cambodian at first glance, but retain some Cambodian flavors.
“I do make Cambodian food, but it’s very specific to who I am,” Lam says. “It’s a reflection of my family’s war-torn past, and my grandmother’s ability to cook food that she was exposed to when she was younger and replicate that and to feed us.”
Unlike restaurants that opened during the pre-pandemic era, Sunshine Noodles’s residency at Psychic Bar was designed for social distancing. Only takeout and outdoor seating are available. To help maintain social distancing while waiting in line, guests stand on smiling cartoon bowls of noodles painted on the outdoor patio. Walking directions are marked with arrows, stylized like the ones from Dance Dance Revolution. A total of four wooden picnic benches are spaced far apart, with tarps sectioning off two of the tables from the other two. The patio is covered, making it a viable option for outdoor dining even when the rain comes. Of course, every trip outside the house comes with some risk, but Lam hopes that Sunshine Noodles will be an option that feels safer for guests.
“A lot of people are telling me this is their first dine-in restaurant outside the house. I think it’s pretty special for them to feel safe and secure, especially with our setup," Lam says. "We’re trying to bring the sunshine.”
Sunshine Noodles, 3560 N Mississippi Ave., Portland. Thurs-Sat 11 a.m.–3 p.m., sunshinenoodles.com