Nyum Bai pays homage to Cambodia’s golden era and street food in Fruitvale

Chef and owner Nite Yun. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Near the Fruitvale BART station, where The Half Orange used to serve up burgers, the space at 3340 E 12th St. has been shuttered since August last year. But this Saturday, Feb. 17, the papers covering the windows will come down and the door will be open. Nyum Bai — a colorful Cambodian joint – will be taking over and making its grand entrance into the neighborhood.

“I came to check out the space and it just felt right,” said young chef and owner, Nite Yun. She is the flavor mastermind that started Nyum Bai as a weekly noodle pop-up at Gashead Tavern and a food stand at Mission Community Market in San Francisco, and then, more recently a kiosk in Emeryville Public Market. This is her first and much-anticipated brick-and-mortar restaurant.

This big step was taken thanks, in large part, to La Cocina, a business incubator that helps small food businesses grow. Yun joined the incubator program in 2014 and just wrapped up a Kickstarter early this year to finish funding the restaurant. Reem’s California, just across the street from Nyum Bai, was also a product of La Cocina.

The term “nyum bai” means, colloquially, “let’s eat!” in Cambodian. That is the essence of Nite Yun’s restaurant. Veteran Cambodian food enthusiasts and curious novices alike are invited to come in and dine. Here, Yun serves up classic street food-inspired dishes, and has decorated the space to pay homage to the 1960s Cambodian rock-and-roll movement that her parents grew up in before the Khmer Rouge regime took over. In honor of this golden era, Nyum Bai is tricked out with mid-century radios, pastel pinks and blues and a wall adorned with ’60s Cambodian record cover replicas.

Ginger fried chicken at Nyum Bai in Fruitvale. Photo: Melati Citrewireja

“It’s about celebrating the good times, as well as honoring my parents,” said Yun. She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after her parents had fled Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime, which took place from 1975-1979. When she was still a young child, the family moved to Stockton, where many Cambodian families sought refuge. She grew up eating traditional Cambodian food cooked by her mother, but it wasn’t until her first visit to the country about eight years ago that Yun knew she was fated to open Nyum Bai. Cambodian restaurants in the Bay Area are few and far between, and she wanted to portray the culture through the food that transcended the devastation and horror of its past.

Yun moved to the Bay Area to go to nursing school, but about four years ago she decided to change her path to pursue her culinary undertakings. Nyum Bai began as a pop-up, serving noodles at Gashead Tavern. Nite started out with “safe” dishes that she knew people would like — noodles and rice plates were an easy win. But now that she has her own restaurant, she’s letting loose with authentic, very unusual flavors. They do not disappoint.

“I wanted to get people acquainted with the dishes, and slowly introduce them to this. That was the goal all along,” said Yun.

Almost everything is made fresh at Nyum Bai, including the table hot sauces and kroeung — Cambodian-style curry paste that frequents as a base for several of Yun’s culinary creations.

The restaurant will have a relatively short menu with a frequently rotating list of specials. Dishes will be around $11 to $15 each.

There will be ample indoor and outdoor seating, with a TV outside to air sports games. Outlets are available inside for folks to use their laptops.

Amok (left) and Machoo Kroeung Soup (right) at Nyum Bai in Fruitvale. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

The menu isn’t quite finalized, but a popular appetizer that will likely make an appearance is the prahok ktiss dip, stir-fried minced pork belly simmered in coconut milk, salty prahok (fermented fish paste), kroeung and palm sugar, served with fresh seasonal vegetables.

Main dishes may include amok, steamed catfish in a delightful soufflé of fragrant kroeung curry paste, coconut milk, egg, served in a banana leaf-lined dish and topped with coconut cream and lemon zest. Another popular Cambodian dish is the machoo kroeung soup, beef loin marinated in kroeung paste, served with water spinach, eggplant, roasted bird eye chilis, prahok and tamarind beef broth, adorned with roasted curry leaves.

Yun will also likely serve kuri saramann, a short rib curry that reflects Cambodia’s Muslim population with spices like cardamom, fennel, ginger and chili paste, served in a coconut cream sauce and a side of grilled French bread.

Fried sesame balls at Nyum Bai in Fruitvale. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

Beverages will include five to six local beers on tap, and non-alcoholic drinks like Khmer-style cold brew and matcha tea, shaken with palm sugar syrup and almond milk.

Dessert may include sesame balls, likely with a palm sugar filling.

Nyum Bai’s soft opening is slated for Thursday, Feb. 15 and Friday, Feb. 16. The grand opening will kick off on Saturday, Feb. 17, at 11 a.m. Business hours will be 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 5-9 p.m. The restaurant will be closed on Tuesdays.