eater Nite Yun recently gathered with her team, her friends, and family to celebrate the first anniversary of her hit Cambodian restaurant Nyum Bai. In Yun’s words, it was “a surreal get-together.”
“Everyone was saying, ‘We won all the awards that ever existed!’ That’s pretty crazy,” she says. “When I thought of opening Nyum Bai in the beginning, in a million years I didn’t think this would happen. I’m still feeling shocked and overwhelmed.”
Her petite Oakland restaurant is jam-packed for every service, with folks often lining up before the place even opens. On Friday nights, diners can expect to wait an hour and a half for a coveted seat.
That’s because Yun’s singular restaurant features deeply personal, traditional, and delicious Cambodian dishes that are difficult to find elsewhere in the Bay Area — or the country, for that matter. It’s earned loads of national accolades, landing on Eater’s best new restaurants list and Bon Appétit’s Hot 10. Yun was named an Eater Young Gun and 2018’s Eater Breakout Star of the Year. And despite an exciting year for local restaurant openings, Nyum Bai emerged as the clear choice for Eater SF’s Restaurant of the Year, earning her a feature. Just last week Nyum Bai was nominated as a 2019 James Beard Award semifinalist along with Angler, the spendy fine dining hit from chef Joshua Skenes.
With such high demand combined with Nyum Bai’s snug digs, it’s easy to wonder if Yun will try to move her restaurant to a larger space or expand with another location soon. Yun says the thought has come up, but she’s not ready quite yet.
Here’s a look at five dishes that help tell the story of Nyum Bai.
Kuy Teav Phnom Penh
This is the dish that first put Nyum Bai on the map. Yun served it when Nyum Bai was still a little-known pop-up, and it became a quick hit in the restaurant’s early days as a food stall in Emeryville. The star is the rich and earthy pork broth, which gets cooked for seven hours and finished off with minced pork, braised brisket, shrimp, rice noodles, herbs, and crispy garlic. It’s the dish Yun’s mom would cook on the weekends — a huge pot would last the family for days. “My friends would probably come over just to eat the kuy teav,” Yun says with a laugh.
Yun has been continually tweaking her mom’s recipe. More recently, she’s swapped dried noodles for fresh, added thinly sliced brisket on top, and threw chicken feet into the broth. “I think we’re at kuy teav version 10.0. I played with it and elevated it. Now it’s more complex and richer than ever before.”
A hit with food critics, the silky, custardy catfish curry is Cambodia’s national dish. It’s not something Yun ate much at home, though — nor do most Cambodians. “This is what the king and queen would eat. Preparation wise, it’s very elegant, it’s very time consuming to prepare, you use a lot of seafood,” says Yun. “Even in Cambodia, if you live in the countryside or the city, you don’t have time to prepare such an elaborate dish.”
In other words, amok — catfish steamed kroeung, shrimp paste, coconut milk, and egg in banana leaves — is for the royal family. (And the tourists.) While kroeung, the Cambodian spice paste of lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, garlic, turmeric, and shallots, is in just about every dish at Nyum Bai, the amok is one of the best for appreciating its flavor.
This popular Cambodian dip features pork belly simmered with coconut milk, kroeung, prahok (fermented fish paste), palm sugar, and chilies. It remains one of Yun’s all-time favorite dishes, and her staff love eating what’s left on the bottom of the pot with rice. For customers, Yun pairs the dip with whatever crunchy vegetables she sees at the nearby farmers market — right now, that includes sprouting cauliflower and chicory. It’s her little Californian twist on an otherwise very traditional dish.
The prahok ktiss is also a top choice at Nyum Bai for tasting prahok, another staple ingredient in Cambodian cooking. Yun currently buys the prahok, but “I do have a little experiment going on in the kitchen,” she says. “One day I think I’ll use my own fermented fish.”
A few months ago, Yun added these noodles to the menu — in part for practical reasons. It’s a solid vegan option. “I thought, ‘Wow, it’s something vegan but it’s so delicious.’ I didn’t really have to tweak the recipe,” she says. “Without the dried shrimp, it’s 100 percent vegan.”
In Cambodian communities, you’ll see this dish at any wedding, festival, or other temple gathering. It doesn’t sound terribly exciting from the menu description: glass noodles, yuba tofu, onions, mushrooms, and lily buds (and salty dried shrimp for non-vegans). But with a heavy blast of black pepper and some Golden Mountain soy sauce, it shows Nyum Bai’s impressive restraint but strong execution with simple dishes.
Chien Tray and Ngoum Mango
This crispy fried catfish is another one of Nyum Bai’s more recent additions, and it shows Yun making some subtle updates to a Cambodian street food classic. Usually, it’s a grilled whole fish instead of a deep-fried fillet, but the emphasis on crispiness with a rustic, tart slaw of shredded green mango, fish sauce, and peppers is all tradition. When looking at the future of Nyum Bai, Yun says there are still many more Cambodian dishes she wants to introduce at her restaurant. (In recent months, she’s also added loc lak, cubes of beef with a lime-pepper sauce, and bok la hong, a green papaya salad with soft shell crab.)
Yun’s mom loved to make crispy catfish when Yun was growing up — she adored fish plus the combination of sourness and simplicity. “Eventually,” Yun says, “I think I’ll start doing the original way where you grill a whole catfish and eat it with your hands.”
Stay tuned for more features on Eater SF’s 2018 Eater Awards winners.