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Bread & Brew: Cambodian comfort food: chicken skins

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nyno Thol, Sok Sob Bai executive chef, slices fresh produce for a Chefs Choice Ka Thiew soup at the Cambodian restaurant in Southeast Portland. The place takes pride in its soup; the bowl of soup pictured contains pork rib, fish ball with roe hard-boiled quail eggs, beef rib, chicken wing, scallion, cilantro, onion and fried garlic.Not that we really need more salty, greasy, crunchy bar food.

But the new Cambodian restaurant Sok Sab Bai serves a drinking snack so addictive that I wouldn’t be surprised to see it migrating to other happy hour menus. It’s called sighk moan papo — translation: fried chicken skins.

Curled and crispy, they’re in the same food group as pork rinds, cheese curds, or calamari, but with their own chicken-flavored, beer-loving personality.

They’re a highlight at the restaurant, which grew from a popular food cart of the same name. Chef and owner Nyno Thol was born in Cambodia, but when he was a small child, his family became refugees who eventually settled in Southeast Portland.

The name Sok Sab Bai means “how are you?” It’s the first friendly question you ask a house guest, and so it seems fitting that the restaurant is built into a Craftsman home just off Southeast Clinton Street, next door to St. Jack.

A sandwich board outside advertises daily specials. Sunday is “hangover soup day.” It’s a different soup each week, from the chef’s repertoire of traditional recipes. Like Vietnam, Cambodia takes soup very seriously. It’s served at all times of the day, and it typically starts with a complicated, aromatic broth to which noodles, herbs, and meat are added.

Sok Sab Bai offers a vegetarian tofu soup, a comforting and hearty chicken noodle seasoned with Khmer red curry, and a build-your-own soup option. The house broth is made with chicken, beef, pork, garlic and onions, and has a mildly funky herbal aftertaste. It’s rounded out with rice noodles and your choice of add-ons such as pork ribs, beef meatballs and quail eggs. I opted for a seafood combo of fresh, bouncy shrimp and somewhat doughy fish balls with a little trove of roe in their centers.

The soup ritual also entails a spice cart that is wheeled to the table, and stocked with hot chili oil, house-pickled Thai chilis and jalapenos, house-made spicy soy and fish sauces, and the house signature sauce, called simply Da Sauce. It’s a sweet and spicy hot sauce that also is sold in local markets.

Da Sauce brightens entrees like spicy char-grilled ribs, spicy chicken wings, and a whole fried striped bass. At lunch or dinner, you can get a bahn mi-style sandwich with braised pork shoulder, which was a staple at the food cart.

But for sit-down fare, happy hour is probably the best bet. That’s when you can get simple but excellent tofu skewers for $4. The cubed tofu has a crisp exterior and a very tender, almost creamy center. It’s drizzled with a sweet barbecue sauce; ask for more on the side.

Or get the pork belly buns, two pillowy white steamed buns wrapped around thick slices of pork belly. Contrasting with the fatty pork is a little garnish of pickled vegetables, a delicious slice of vinegar-soaked cucumber, and lying in wait, a slice of jalapeno that suddenly jumps out and hits your palate like a firecracker.

Skip the egg rolls, which were dull and greasy, despite an interesting fish sauce dip with a sweet, almost fruity flavor. And whatever you do, get the chicken skins.

For dessert there’s a choice of coconut fried banana or mung bean and rice cake in coconut broth. If coconut’s not your thing, keep in mind that the Fifty Licks ice cream shop is just around the corner.

11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday, 2625 S.E. 21st Ave., Unit B, 971-255-0292, www.soksabbai.com, entrees $10-$16

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