Restaurant Guide 2013: Sok Sab Bai

2625 SE 21st Ave., 971-255-0292,

[KHMER HERE] Portland's only exclusively Cambodian restaurant—others serve Cambodian along with Thai and/or Vietnamese—was spawned from a food cart and now sits tucked into an old house next to St. Jack on Southeast 21st Avenue. I was won over by a $3 fried chicken-skin special that seems to have disappeared into the ether, but stayed hooked on the place through the last grains of white rice soaked in chef Nyno Thol's hand-tremblingly addictive Da sauce. Highlights include 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. Beef ceviche (plee-uh sighk ko, $7), a cold salad of thin steak bathed in lime juice and sprinkled with peanuts, mint and peppers, also impresses. 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, or 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 Da hot sauce. Speaking of Da sauce: It punches sweet, hot and salty buttons in a way that leaves you eyeing everything on the table, scrambling to find another suitable receptacle. 

Ideal meal: Fried chicken skins—I might try bringing my own raw and begging them to cook them—followed by beef ceviche, bao and sausage.

Best deal: Nyno's chicken plate ($11)—a large portion of grilled chicken slathered in the house's own bright orange sauce.

Pro tip: They sell the Da hot sauce to go. You'll want some.

11 am-9 pm Monday-Saturday, 11 am-8 pm Sunday. $$.


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