When Nite Yun debuted her restaurant Nyum Bai in Oakland, California, early this year, she had one goal in mind: to see people from all backgrounds eat the food she grew up with. “I just really wanted to bring awareness to Cambodian food and provide a space or a home for the Cambodian diaspora,” she says. And in the months since Nyum Bai’s February opening, Cambodian food — Yun’s Cambodian food, to be precise — has at the very least dominated food-media headlines, resulting now in one more accolade to add to Yun’s 2018 haul: Eater’s Breakout Star of the Year.
Nyum Bai appeared on national best-of lists, including Eater’s best new restaurants list and Bon Appétit’s Hot 10, and Yun was named an Eater Young Gun. The press, most of it clustered together this past summer, translated into instant business. “We had the write-ups and the accolades come out all in one month, and overnight we had a group of people waiting at the restaurant even before we opened,” Yun says. “We couldn’t keep up with everyone because we still had the same amount of crew working and the covers quadrupled.”
Yun was born in Thailand to Cambodian refugees. The family eventually settled in Stockton, California, among other immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. “I never felt like I didn’t fit in,” she told Eater earlier this year. It wasn’t until a visit to Cambodia as an adult that Yun realized Cambodian culture — and cuisine — wasn’t as well represented in America as it should be, and that she could change that.
Yun started her business as a part of the La Cocina culinary incubator program, and Nyum Bai made the rounds as a pop-up before opening as a more permanent platform for sharing Cambodian culture in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. The success, she says, has been “surreal.”
Although Nyum Bai attracts visitors from Hawai‘i to Minnesota, Yun is especially proud of how locals have embraced the restaurant, which is one of several that made Oakland’s dining scene stand out this year. Yun wants to make Nyum Bai a hub for the Bay Area’s Cambodian community, particularly the younger generations. She plays Cambodian music and showcases the work of Cambodian artists, but in the coming year, she hopes to do more. She envisions a “dance party here at Nyum Bai where people can dress up in ’50s/’60s outfits and dance to Cambodian rock tunes.”
Yun says people often ask her about whether she’ll open more Nyum Bais. The answer is no, for now. “I’m not there yet. I just want to make sure the food that comes out of the kitchen is always bangin’,” she says. And to that end, Yun’s working on adding new classic Cambodian dishes to the menu, like a papaya salad that she’s “trying to get as funky as possible” and a porridge, in time for the colder season. “There are so many good dishes that I haven’t showcased yet,” she says. One other goal for 2019: “Hopefully, maybe I’ll have at least a few days off.”