That I’m eating kuy teav phnom penh, Cambodian rice noodle soup with minced pork, minutes from the BART station in Fruitvale, Oakland, feels akin to magic. It’s perfect — savory and slightly sweet and comforting, the perfect food. And Nyum Bai — open since this past February — feels something like magic, too.
Its patio shares space with a store selling miscellany — poignant-feeling Hillary Clinton piñatas. On a Saturday afternoon, the restaurant is all millennials — the exception is two tiny babies — while sixties Cambodian rock plays in the background, all warbling singing and frenetic drums. Behind a window, the Cambodian-American chef/owner, Nite Yun, cooks some of the Bay Area’s best Cambodian food. “I hope that this is a space where first- and second-generation Cambodians can come and reconnect with their heritage and country,” Yun says, though that wasn’t always her mission. From the incubator program La Cocina, to pop-ups, to a brick-and-mortar in Emeryville, and now her restaurant in Fruitvale, cooking was not always what she’d planned.
Nite Yun’s story starts in 1982: She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. When Nite was two, in 1984, her parents headed, as refugees, to America. Though they’d been sponsored to go to Texas, they settled in Stockton — a town in California’s Central Valley, about an hour and a half from San Francisco, and where “there were two malls,” Yun says. “That was all there was to do.”
But it was also home to a large Cambodian community and to Cambodian supermarkets. “I grew up in an apartment complex with a bunch of Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese who had to escape too because of the war,” Yun says. “I never felt like I didn’t fit in.” Eating rice with dried fish and green mango salads was their norm. Her mother had walked from Cambodia to Thailand, on foot; she’d walked through the landmine-addled jungle — on purpose; this was as good as suicide — and somehow lived. In California, she was a seamstress; Yun’s father worked as a cook in a Chinese kitchen. It was what they did to make ends meet.
Growing up the middle child, between two brothers, Yun spent a lot of time alone, reading magazines (Rolling Stone, Redbook) and listening to CDs (Boyz II Men, 311, Sublime) she ordered from Publisher’s Clearing House catalogs, not knowing you had to pay for them — until her mom got the bill. And in their family’s one-bedroom apartment, she spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her mother, “sitting on the floor, chopping lemongrass, peeling garlic, washing veggies and herbs.” It was what she did — it didn’t seem like a vocation, but she enjoyed it.
Early on, Yun got it in her mind to head west. In fourth grade, her class went on a field trip to San Francisco. “I got obsessed with moving to San Francisco,” Yun explains. “I would collect anything related to San Francisco: maps and magnets, and even napkins that said San Francisco.”
After high school, she made the move. She studied nursing while working three jobs — among them, staffing her Korean landlady’s adult video store. “She took me in like I was her daughter,” Yun remembers. “We got drunk together on my twenty-first birthday.” Her Korean landlady dreamed of being a flight attendant; years later, she did.
Yun realized that nursing wasn’t her true calling, but wasn’t sure what was. In San Francisco, she loved walking around the city — namely, to eat. “I could walk into any neighborhood and go to any dumpling stop, any barbecue place,” she remembers. “There are so many different types of food.” And yet, the food she’d eaten growing up wasn’t as readily available. “That’s when I came to the realization, Oh my gosh, there are no good Cambodian restaurants. I was craving my mom’s cooking, and I couldn’t find it anywhere.”
She learned to cook for herself by calling her mom, and asking for recipes. She realized Cambodian culture wasn’t well represented in the states, and sought to learn more about her heritage. She began taking trips to Cambodia to learn, directly from her relatives, about the things her parents had never told her. She learned about her mother and the landmines. How great her grandmother was. During her fourth trip was when she had her epiphany to open Nyum Bai.
“I was in Penom Penh at the noodle stall in the market where I would usually go to get my soup,” Yun says. “And then it just hit me: I’m going to start my own Cambodian food business. Why not? I didn’t think about how or when. If it’s possible or not. I just knew I had to. I just had to. I had no choice.”
Back at home, she devoted herself to learning to cook Cambodian food. She invited friends over and took notes, keeping extensive spreadsheets in the process. She was accepted into La Cocina’s incubator program, and from there one door opened to the next. She’s thrilled to be at her new space in Fruitvale, which opened in February 2018, though it hasn’t been without its share of challenges. She’s learning to be part of the community, which is predominantly Latin American; she’s having to learn about the challenges of running a brick-and-mortar. Nevertheless, the dream’s come true.
“A friend recently emailed me an email I’d sent to her back in 2014,” Yun remembers. “She said, ‘Hey Nite, I’m super proud of you, just four or five years ago, Nyum Bai was just a dream, and now you actually have your place.’ I reread that email again and again. I can’t believe it either.”
Nite Yun is the chef and owner of Nyum Bai in Oakland, CA.
Rachel Khong is a writer and novelist living in San Francisco.