The floor tiles at Nyum Bai, Nite Yun’s small Cambodian restaurant in Fruitvale, greet you hello in Khmer: “SOUSDEY.” And the pink bathroom wallpaper print depicts Oakland’s Tribune Tower alongside stone figures from the temple of Prasat Bayon and pop singers from the era before President Nixon’s “secret bombing” campaign in the early 1970s and the Khmer Rouge’s four-year, genocidal reign later in that decade. If you aren’t able to make out either reference without asking the staff or enrolling in a hand-held Google University crash course, don’t worry: There’s still plenty for you here.
A follow-up to Nite Yun’s stand at the Emeryville Public Market, the brick-and-mortar Nyum Bai is the ultimate introduction to a still-slightly-obscure Southeast Asian cuisine. There have been many Cambodian-Americans in California for decades, but as a marvelous 2014 California Sunday Magazine profile laid bare, many of them opened doughnut shops instead of restaurants serving their native foods. Yun, who was born in a refugee camp and grew up in Stockton, has taken over the former Half Orange space — and the result is a food-driven exposure to as much of Cambodian culture as possible.
It’s a fun ride, and your server might encourage your friend’s labored effort to pronounce things properly. Start with prahok ktiss dip ($12.95), a pork-in-coconut sauce that, in terms of depth of flavor, is basically an infinity pool. Accompanied by lightly pickled cucumbers, carrots, and cabbage that almost certainly came straight from Fruitvale Station’s three-days-a-week farmers market, it’s like a superior (and beanless) take on chili — with a mild heat, but that’s all you need.
In contrast to so many of their cousins, which wilt from the steam locked inside, the maim chien chrouk — or garlicky fried egg rolls with pork, cabbage, glass noodles, and taro ($8.95) — retain their crispness even when you come back to them. (Naim chien banlai are the vegetarian equivalent, made with mushrooms instead. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the meaty version is tastier.)
Although the ngoum banana salad ($11.95) — which contains blossoms, not slices of ’nanner — sits in a lime sauce that’s nearly a broth, it manages to harness the citric acid without succumbing to it. There’s enough mint and basil in here to push their aromas upward, and as I’ve written many times, I’m a sucker for a wet crunch. And if such a combo cries out for protein, you can throw some shrimp on for $2.95.
Similar to a Thai massaman curry — only studded with many of the ingredients in a boeuf bourguignon, plus a generous helping of cardamom — the kuri saramann ($15.95) is a stew of braised short ribs. It’s very sugary, but the French bread that comes with the dish cuts right through the sweetness, allowing the broth’s other spices to surface.
Every time I think I’ve reached my lifetime quota of pork belly, I stumble on another preparation that reignites my love for it, and here it’s the koh, another stew with a coconut base that’s also made with tofu, dark soy, and palm sugar, plus an egg that’s listed as hard-boiled but which is definitely poached. Better that than the other way around, no question. So unless you have a major aversion to a runny yolk, I would slice this one open and mix it around as you would with ramen. With all those cubes of pork belly in there, I guess this effectively yields a big old bowl of cholesterol in sugar, but — well, try it and see for yourself how it works.
The only underwhelming item is the fried chicken ($11.95), which needs to be crispier, spicier, or both. Instead, the ginger sauce is mild, mixing with the breading to become a little gluey, and since there’s no shortage of worthy wings in this world, you can find comfort in either of the two rice noodle dishes. Kuy teav cha ($10.95) is a tamarind-and-fish-sauce preparation with lime and a fried egg that looks much like standard-issue takeout but dodges that homogenizing force. Plainly put, you can taste everything. Even the bean shoots feel more like a vital component than filler.
Named for the Cambodian capital — a clue to its nature as street food, and a breakfast dish at that — the kuy teav Phnom Penh is a rice noodle soup with pork and shrimp, topped with garlic and a ton of cilantro ($11.95). It can be hard to pin down: On my first two visits, Nyum Bai was out of it altogether. You’ll immediately see why, as it has that magical-seeming combination of bright citrus and rich pork, a result of cooking all day long.
While you can get a Henhouse Hoppy Saison or an Ol’ Republic Red Ale, to me, food like this cries out for a lager or something like a Fort Point KSA. Wines are coming soon, but with the advent of warmer weather, there’s Thai iced tea and a Khmer cold brew with palm sugar and half-and-half ($5). In other words, there’s almost one drink option per chair in there.
Although it can be frustrating when restaurants have one and only one dessert, requiring you to re-order the same thing every time, the nom krouch (or sesame balls, $3.50 each) are hot and sticky and sweet. Worst-case scenario, if you get there early enough in the day, the churro stand just outside might still be open. A two-minute walk from BART, Nyum Bai is barely 100 yards from the more-famous-by-the-day Middle Eastern bakery Reem’s. It has a fraction of the seats, but in short order, it might accrue a similar reputation for excellence.
Nyum Bai, 3340 E. 12 St., Suite 11, Oakland, 510-500-3338 or nyumbai.com