Chef Sophai Chey wouldn’t sell me somlor machu kreung, she admitted after I returned to her restaurant in Santa Rosa a few days later for a sit-down interview.
“In Cambodia, everyone eats it, but here only people already know about it,” she said, showing me around the kitchen of her tidy little cafe on Guerneville and Fulton roads. “So we wondered if she really wanted this food? Has she ever eaten this food? Will it be okay? »
The answer is yes, yes and hell yes, for the savory sweet and sour soup topped with beef tendon, lemongrass and tangy fermented anchovies. I have traveled through the Southeast Asian region and have fallen in love with many such dishes celebrating earthy flavors ranging from sweet to savory to salty, refreshed with fresh herbs and spices exotic.
More curious for me, though: why was I eating Cambodian food in a donut shop? Sophai and her husband, Van Chey, own Tan’s Donut, a casual cafe anchored in display cases overflowing with pastries of all kinds. They bought the place in 2000 from the Tan family, who still own Tan’s other two locations east of Santa Rosa.
Their donuts are some of the best in the world, with giant apple donuts, buttermilk bars, chocolate éclairs, cakes, crispy treats and more. But a few years ago they added a few Vietnamese and Thai dishes to their lineup, enticing customers with familiar pho, vermicelli bowls and pad Thai.
Eventually they added a handful of Cambodian dishes, promoted mostly by word of mouth. Then, after closing for a while last winter to remodel the dining room, they reopened in January with an expanded menu of Cambodian classics.
The Chey family doesn’t believe that crullers and cha kreung satch moan (Cambodian chicken stir-fry with lemongrass, $17.50) are popular combos in their homeland — they just thought, “We have a great kitchen.” , why not.
Their American-born daughter, Veronica Chey, didn’t quite get it either. “But then I found a story about a guy from Long Beach who had a whole thing there,” she said.
And yes, Cambodian-owned donut shops are a big industry in the Southern California city, with its own “Cambodia Town” neighborhood. A local restaurant, Koh Ruessei, serves Cambodian and Thai dishes and shares space with a Latin American bakery specializing in elaborate birthday and wedding cakes.
There are more stores across California, Cambodian immigrants and their children who run the lion’s share of the state’s independent donut shops, plus plenty of restaurants that combine donut-Chinese-Vietnamese-Thai dishes. (think Savor Vietnamese Cuisine on Montgomery Drive near Mission Boulevard or Yo Panda on Corporate Center Parkway at Sebastopol Road, both in Santa Rosa, and both owned by a cousin Chey).
However, the activity of the Cheys is unique for our region.
“In Santa Rosa, we just don’t have Cambodian food,” Sophai said. “Some places say they have it, but it’s more Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese – they don’t know how to cook Cambodian properly.”
When Sophai was a young girl, she watched her mother run a small roadside stall in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.
“It was hard work and a struggle,” she recalls. “She didn’t have a license or anything, she was just cooking to support us kids. The poor cannot afford beef or even lemongrass, so people can only buy it once in a while. Yet when I was playing games, I was playing cooking.
She learned how to make Cambodian curry, flavored with rich pork blood, chili paste and crunchy bamboo, then tossed with vegetables, rice vermicelli and tofu ($16), chicken ($17, $50) or shrimp ($18.50).
She saw how the beef stew blended with slow-braised pieces of tendon and flank beef, meatballs, carrots, onions, star anise, chili peppers, palm sugar and many other ingredients she keeps secret ($19.50). A splash of fish sauce adds a delicious sour bite to the long-simmered, soupy concoction that you can slurp with rice, vermicelli, or bread fresh from the Tan’s oven.
And she made lok lak, a traditional salad platter of sliced beef, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and lettuce arranged like a wagon wheel ($18). The beef is marinated in soy sauce, oyster sauce, tomato sauce, sugar, fish sauce, ground black pepper and garlic, then wok-seared and served with a dip of lime, black pepper and prahok fermented fish paste.
Or maybe it’s not exactly that recipe.
“For all of my dishes, when I think about the food, I just add things to make it even better,” Sophai said. “All my friends ask me what I put in it, but I only rely on my own palate.”