Sometimes it's the simple things that leave you reeling. Remember your first Ike's Wings? Even if you'd known great chicken wings, there's something special about Pok Pok's signature dish, whole flappers doused in an enchanting blend of fish sauce
Sok Sab Bai does it with cracklings. Maybe you've had a fancy version of pork rinds before—the Woodsman Tavern, Lardo and Grain & Gristle are known for them—but they're nothing like these fried chicken skins. The recipe seems simple enough: crunchy, warm skins with a sprinkle of Japanese seven-spice. But after you've tried them, your standard for the truck-stop staple will never be the same.
And so Sok Sab Bai—Portland's
only[Edit: only exclusively] Cambodian restaurant, spawned from Portland's only Cambodian food cart and now tucked into an old house next to St. Jack on Southeast 21st Avenue—won me over in only 10 minutes and $3. That feeling continued through the last grains of white rice soaked in chef Nyno Thol's hand-tremblingly addictive Da sauce.
Start with the skins, but also check out amok trey ($10), Cambodia's national dish: tender chunks of steamed catfish marinated in coconut milk and fish paste. It's served in a bamboo steamer with dipper-sized cuts of cucumber, purple cabbage and Thai eggplant. We were also impressed with the beef ceviche (plea sach ko, $7) a cold salad of thin steak bathed in lime juice and sprinkled with peanuts, mint and peppers. If you're feeling less adventurous, try a plate of two fluffy pork-belly bao ($6), stuffed with a few pieces of tender meat, a slice of jalapeño and a whole banh mi's worth of carrots, daikon and cilantro.
Cambodians eat soup with most meals, but I tried only one: a slightly sweet pork stew called caw ($13) with boiled peanuts, bamboo shoots and a quail egg in a simple chicken curry. I'd rather skip straight to the entrees, which are served with sizeable piles of rice and salad, plus a little mound of pickled things.
There, you'll find three short links of smoky, slightly charred Khmer-spiced sausage ($13) to be dipped in the Sok Sab Bai version of salsa, a little square dish of cherry tomatoes, onion, cilantro and hot sauce. Nyno's chicken plate ($11) is an even better bargain—a large portion of grilled chicken slathered in the house's own bright orange sauce.
Speaking of Da sauce: It's damned good. It punches sweet, hot and salty buttons in a way that leaves you eyeing everything on the table, scrambling to find another suitable receptacle. Our two mostly untouched piles of rice were consumed bathed in the sauce. It would have been great to try it on the chicken skins, too. Those were long, long gone.
EAT: Sok Sab Bai, 2625 SE 21st Ave., 971-255-0292, soksabbai.com. 11 am-9 pm Monday-Saturday, 11 am-8 pm Sunday. $$.