PLEASE NOTE: THE PICTURES IN THE PRINTED VERSION OF THE SE EXAMINER WERE OF THE WRONG RESTAURANT.
By Cat Wurdack
2625 SE 21st St.
Mon. – Sat. 11 am to 9 pm
Sun. 10 am to 8 pm
Sok Sab Bai chef-owner Nyno Thol left Cambodia at the age of 2 when he and his family were relocated to a Thailand refugee camp during the Killing Fields era. His family was sponsored into the U.S. in 1983 and settled in the Clinton Street area. Thol and his Cambodian-born parents have lived in the Clinton neighborhood for more than 28 years.
After graduating from Cleveland High, Thol attended Portland’s Western Culinary Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts where he received formal training to fine tune the culinary traditions he had learned at home.
He opened a food cart at SE 11th and Clay and followed that with a sushi restaurant he ran for six years. Sok Sab Bai is on the first floor of a Victorian residential building that Thol has converted into an elegant and serene eatery with a chef’s counter, a covered porch, and a private room with traditional mat seating for parties and business meetings.
When Thol opened Sok Sab Bai two years ago, he says, he missed making sushi and decided to add a “modern twist” to traditional Cambodian dishes. In addition to Cambodian classics (spicy pork tongue, oxtail bone marrow that you suck out of the bone, fermented beef and rice sausages, and pork-blood rice porridge), Thol likes to come up with creative, new dishes including oxtail tacos and a sushi-inspired salad with fried smoked salmon skin and vegetables.
Every Sunday, Thol offers a different “hangover soup”, the Cambodian version of pho. On “throwback Thursdays”, any menu item is available at food cart prices. Students and service industry employees receive a 20 percent discount on Tuesdays, and Monday is all-day happy hour.
Entrees are around $10 with ginger fried bass for two topping out at $14. Starters are $5 to $10. Grilled oysters on the half-shell ($6) are served with Thol’s own hot sauce, “Da Sauce,” which Portland Monthly recently named among the top five hot sauces of the year.
As a second-generation Cambodian, Thol says, he started his business to help build what his family and friends had lost a couple of decades ago under the Khmer Rouge. He wanted to introduce Cambodian culture and cuisine to Portlanders who are curious about southeast Asian food.
Thol plans to return to Cambodia to help Cambodian students buy books and further their education through the Helping Hands Foundation he founded.