I had dinner with friends at Nyum Bai, a new Cambodian restaurant in Oakland on Friday. Nyum Bai went from restaurant pop up to restaurant stall to creating permanent residency at this brick and mortar in the Fruitvale Public Market across from the Fruitvale BART station. I was super excited because I was one of almost 300 people to fund the Nyum Bai brick and mortar project early this year via Kickstarter.
My knowledge of Cambodian food is from my fifteen years experience eating at Phnom Penh House in Oakland, which has been around for over three decades. I’ve always enjoyed eating there and it was sad when their original location in Chinatown closed.
My friends and I decided to eat family style at Nyum Bai. With four of us, that would give us a good sampling of the menu. For starters, we ordered the prahok ktiss which is ground pork belly that is stir fried and slowly simmered in coconut milk, fish paste, kroeung (a blend of Cambodian spices and herbs), and sweet palm sugar. I liken it to the Cambodian version of dip and crudités, but so much better.
The machoo kroeung soup is made up of pork spareribs marinated in kroeung paste, water spinach, eggplants, roasted bird eye chilies, curry leaves, fish paste, and tamarind in a beef broth. The ingredients and flavors married together so well that it produced an excellent broth. This bowl brought me joy by the spoonful.
One of my favorite vegetables is water spinach. It’s known to me as ong choy which are long leafy green vegetable with hollow stems. The cha tahona-kounl is the Cambodian version that is stir fried with fermented beans and garlic. It’s still one of my favorites!
We also shared the kuy teav Phnom Penh which is a noodle soup with minced pork, shrimp, herbs, and crispy garlic cooked in a 7 hour pork broth. This is Nyum Bai’s signature comfort dish. This was very mild in flavor compared to our other dishes. I also find it similar to many other Asian noodle soup dishes where it calls my name when I’m feeling under the weather.
The most unique dish was the amok which is a fish curry steamed in banana leaves. The spices added fragrance and the egg and coconut milk provides a rich custard texture. It was delicious.
In place of the fried catfish that was not available, we ordered the beef loc lok, which is similar to the Vietnamese version of shaking beef that has a strong onion and peppercorn flavor. It comes with a perfectly cooked boiled egg on a bed of arugula. It’s a beef eater’s dream.
As we came near the ending of our dinner, we were already discussing the dishes we would try the next time. Nyum Bai brings another dimension of Cambodian food to Oakland and will make Fruitvale Station a destination!