WE GET THREE KINDS of press releases here in the food and drink offices of the Mercury. First are the revelatory announcements from Salty's on the Columbia that Mother's Day is, in fact, a great time to treat mom to a complimentary mimosa. Second are the Food Network ones about how diner tick Guy Fieri is now endorsing Proctor Silex or Torrid for Him, or something. Last are the public service alerts that while I am sitting there reading my child is at school eating great scoops of "pink slime" from an oversized wooden spoon. So as you can imagine, a press release of actual local intrigue gets more than a little attention when it lands in the inbox. (Hear that, cart owners?)
Sok Sab Bai, which bills itself as Portland's only Cambodian food cart, sent us one such release last week. "Introducing authentic and contemporary home-style Cambodian comfort food," it read, before running down a tragic history (the chef, Nyno Thol, escaped the killing fields for the Philippines at age two) and an inspiring tale of human perseverance (he later attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and now has two restaurants, including Bara Sushi House). The included photographs depicted colorful Indochine soup and rice dishes, which look unsurprisingly akin to those of Cambodia's French-influenced peers, Vietnam and Thailand, with vibrant colors and bountiful stacks of julienned aromatics. It gives a food enthusiast a special kind of "cred" to tirelessly hunt for obscure and far-flung Asian specialties, such as the snail soups and tripe porridges which line 82nd, so an early visit to this curiosity was a must. The very next day I nosed the import past their spacious lot, and saw promising, billowing clouds of smoke flowing from the roof fans like steam from the ears of a vengeful elephant.
As I was beginning a banh mi crawl that day, I had the nom pang-sighk, or Cambodian sandwich ($5), which is an almost identical analog to that popular Vietnamese item. The crunchy-yet-pillowy fresh white roll held a generous but not messy serving of moist, rich braised pork, and featured distinctive spears of fresh pickle and jalapeño along with cilantro, carrot, and onion (I ordered mine hot when given the option, which meant more spears of jalapeño). A healthy dose of their fish sauce—which is anything but fishy for its balancing lime, sugar, tomato, Thai chiles, cilantro, and scallions—blew the needle off the dial in terms of deep, dark, tangy flavor. The many $3 banh mi I tried elsewhere that day tasted of perfunctory cardboard after the nom pang-sighk. I'm not the first to note its quality: It was recently named one of the top 10 ethnic sandwiches in Portland by prominent food magazine Mix. (I like to imagine that the other nine were also this sandwich.)
Char-grilled pork, chicken thigh, and galangal-flavored Cambodian beef and rice sausage (khwa ko) dishes are the mainstays of Sok Sab Bai's menu, with a regularly updated roster of noodle and meatball soups, grilled tofu, halibut, shrimp, beef ribs, and more (their Facebook page, as of press time, shows 64 variations on their electronic daily menu board, never identical). Sighk-chrook, or the pork chop plate ($8), is two marinated thin-cut pork chops grilled perfectly on the bone, right down to the photogenic black hash marks and scored, charred fat rind. Served with white rice, tamarind vinaigrette-dressed organic greens, an assortment of pickles, and a cup of the aforementioned fish sauce, it's a beautiful and sizable meal for one. The sighk-moan ang, or chicken plate ($7, pounded and sliced marinated thigh), and chef's plate ($10, chicken thigh and pork) are presented the same way. Dressed at the table with the house condiments of spicy soy (with garlic, jalapeño, and onion) and pickled jalapeño in vinegar, the food is anything but monotonous.
The chicken noodle soup ($7) is a beautifully plated large serving for one, with finely shredded white meat atop a generous portion of tender, fettuccine-sized egg noodles, fragrant with Chinese broccoli, green onion, and cilantro. The side seasonings of fried garlic, hot chile oil, and black pepper enliven this mild soup and its light, slightly slick chicken broth. A stir-fry of tofu ($7) with fresh ginger and vegetables is a menu standard for vegetarians.
I predict it will not be long before this cart, located behind the Hawthorne Burgerville and a stone's throw from the pod at SE 12th, joins the ranks of the Nongs, Whiffies, and Pyros of Portland lore. Go now, before that inevitable Portland phenomenon rears up: the hour-long line.
Mon-Wed 11 am–2:30 pm, Thurs-Fri 11 am-7 pm or until sold out. Outdoor and covered private seating. Check Twitter or Facebook for daily menu updates.