There are a lot of perks to moving to Mars - from being a colonizing pioneer of the final frontier to never bumping into your old high school classmates at the grocery store again. And because of that, there are a lot of companies working to make space travel a common thing. That’s all well and good, but we wish some of them would shift their attention away from space travel and toward perfecting teleportation. Partially because it would make getting to Jupiter’s moons easier, but mostly so we could set up a portal to Nyum Bai in Oakland.
Nyum Bai is a casual Cambodian spot in Fruitvale and while getting to this place isn’t a monumental achievement, and being beamed here isn’t totally necessary, the food is so good that you’ll wish you could show up here whenever you felt like it.
When you walk into Nyum Bai, the first thing you notice are the smells of different soups, stews, and noodle dishes passing by as servers deliver them to other tables. It’ll make you want to stop reading that article on rocket fuel advancements from the Lyft over and start trying to figure out what dish that was that just smelled better than James Earl Jones sounds. You can take turns swapping back and forth between staring at the food next to you and scanning the menu at Mach 2, but it won’t matter because pretty much anything you order is going to be one of the best things you’ve eaten in a long time.
photo credit: Mary Lagier
The menu isn’t huge, but everything you eat at Nyum Bai is bright and flavorful. Each dish features ingredients like palm sugar, mango, and red peppers, and - much like your first few days as a trailblazer on Saturn - nothing you get here will ever be boring. Even if you’ve never had Cambodian food, one of the things that makes the food here so good is that it’s all familiar in some way. Not because they have stir-fried noodles or something else you’ve actually tasted - it’s more about the details. Like how the sauce with the Prahok Ktiss seems like the cool cousin of a bolognese, or how the black pepper and caramelized pork in the Koh has a lot in common with Texas-style brisket. And like brisket, a lot of what you’ll eat here is comfort food to one degree or another - from crispy catfish piled high with mango salad to a giant bowl of Kuy Teav Phnom Pen that can cure any hangover you throw at it.
When you’re at Nyum Bai, it can feel like you’re in two places at once. The inside is small, but bright with white walls and decorations that look inspired by Miami Vice - it almost feels like you’re in a cantina on some sort of beach planet. But when you walk up to this place, it looks like you’re at a backyard party. There are outdoor tables, some of which back up to booths selling pinatas next door and others that are inside a garage. And while you wait to sit, there’s a small courtyard full of other people hanging out and waiting their turn to eat banana blossom salad with as much enthusiasm as if they were watching a shuttle launch.
Nyum Bai may not be as far away as Titan, but being able to ride a wormhole here would make life on Earth a whole lot better. It’s a fun spot with food that’s way beyond what you’d typically get for a casual weeknight dinner, and until the space moguls realize this and start working on making Rick and Morty portal guns a reality, Nyum Bai is still worth the quick ride across the bridge to Fruitvale.
Ngoum Banana Salad / Banana Blossom Salad
This salad is a tall mound of banana blossom, cabbage, mint, basil, bell peppers, peanuts, and cucumbers in a lime dressing. It’s the only cold thing on the menu and it’s so refreshing that you’ll feel like you’re floating in a pool when you eat it.
Naim Chien Chrouk / Crispy Rolls With Pork, Taro, Cabbage, and Glass Noodles
These are surprisingly light, and it’s a good thing they’re pigs-in-a-blanket-sized because there would be an all-out brawl for the last one otherwise.
Prahok Ktiss / Simmered Pork Belly Stew With Vegetables
If crudites were a pokemon, this would be the final evolution. It’s a small cup of pork belly stew with palm sugar, fish paste, and coconut milk that you dip raw vegetables into. Make sure this is on your table, and if you have a few other people with you, get a second order too.
Kuy Teav Phnom Penh / Pork Broth With Minced Pork, Shrimp, and Noodles
A big bowl of light and flavorful broth with minced pork, shrimp, and noodles. Not exactly sharable, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Kuy Teav Cha / Stir Fried Rice Noodles
This is the only thing that we felt like we could’ve gotten a similar version somewhere else. It’s still good, just not vital to the operation.
Ginger Chicken Wings / Ginger Chicken Wings
Even someone who got demoted to used carpet salesman could push these. They’re fried chicken wings covered in a sticky ginger sauce, do they really need that much selling? That being said, if you’re only getting a few things, they’re not a crucial order, but if you’re getting most of the menu, these can’t fail.
Chien Trey & Ngoum Mango / Crispy Catfish
If you need to be told why crispy catfish is a great thing, you may leave. If you’re still with us, this comes topped with a mango salad with shallot and red pepper that helps make this one of the better pieces of catfish we’ve ever had.
Koh / Pork Belly Simmered In Coconut Water And Palm Sugar
Caramelized pork belly, hard-boiled egg, and tofu cooked in coconut water and palm sugar. The pork belly is covered in black pepper and it almost tastes like smoked Texas brisket (but with pork). If you get the fatty pieces of the pork belly, you’ll feel like Mario when he eats a mushroom, and the liquid is good on its own over the rice it comes with.
Amok / Steamed Fish In Coconut Milk, Kroeung, and Banana Leaf
You know when you eat something that’s really good, but also really hot? So you’re sitting there taking bites of it, but also crying some in pain? And when it finally cools off enough for sane people to eat, it’s mostly gone? Yeah, this is that. It’s fish steamed at the bottom of a crock with banana leaf, egg, ginger, and coconut milk, and topped with coconut cream and lemon zest. If you’re anything like us, you’ll ask for this for your birthday.