On weekends, a sign is raised from the canopy at Pho de Nguyen in San Bruno and proclaims “Authentic Khmer food of Sitha Yim.” While pop-ups attract tens of thousands of social media followers, and boxes of poppy seed cakes and black sesame egg pancakes sold months in advance, pop-up restaurants look modern and glamorous, and offer opportunities for chefs to cook with unrestrained creativity and without the hassle of managing payroll and increasing rents.
But Yim, the owner of Khmerkichi restaurant in Sitha, is neither a pastry chef from a popular restaurant who seizes the opportunity to craft her own menu nor a tech employee who pursues a passion while living on a steady salary. Instead, she learned how to cook most Khmer (pronounced Kh’Mai) recipes from watching her mother’s YouTube videos. Khmer cuisine refers specifically to the Khmer cuisine in Cambodia.
A single mother who derives most of her income from the pop-up but also works three other jobs, sources Yim baby formula and diapers to members of the Cambodian community and carefully sculpts the eyebrows of microblading clients between delivering her orders of twa ko, a sausage stuffed with beef, rice and galangal (often described as more citrusy compared to with ginger).
Yim is part of a movement of entrepreneurs selling hard-to-find dishes locally and getting customers from immigrant communities on social media. With a shortage of Cambodian restaurants on the peninsula and few in Auckland and San Jose, Sitha’s Khmerkitchen, which pops up in Pho de Nguyen on the weekends and also offers food service, is one of the few places to enjoy the Bay Area’s signature cuisine.
Inside the Khmerkitchen Restaurant in Sitha they can find comfort in Brahock KtisMinced pork cooked in coconut milk with fermented fish. Served as a dip, the cabbage and eggplant are drizzled with a strong amount of umami and heat. Orders are also pouring in for this dancing shrimp salad that has raw and translucent seafood, barely visible under the vibrant red pepper flakes and bright green herbs.
However, just three years ago, Yim hadn’t prepared many of these dishes.
Arriving in San Francisco at the age of seven after leaving Cambodia for “too cold” Chicago in 1984, Yim’s childhood centered around the Nagara Dhamma Temple, a Buddhist temple established by her parents. Banned from participating in the extracurricular, Yim washes dishes, cleans and helps the elders at the temple after school. Serving others, especially the elderly, became a paramount value in her life. “I help others before me,” she said, “and sometimes I shouldn’t.”
In 2019, just before the outbreak of the epidemic, Yim returned to live with her mother under the misty skies of San Francisco’s Sunset. Her younger brother just passed away at the age of 33, and she finalized her divorce after a six-year process and found herself the sole caretaker of her two children. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said.
Yim, who formerly owns a donut shop and runs a location in Houston for a Southeast Asian-Cajun seafood restaurant, took a suggestion from a friend and started selling homemade sweet and spicy Cambodian beef through Facebook and Instagram.
“At first, I didn’t know how to make (beef). So I went to YouTube, and I’ve been watching 10, 15, 20 (videos) all night,” said Yim.
At first, I made the bacon – traditionally served warm and crunchy – at home, and placed trays of beef steak in the living room, on the porch and even on the stairs depending on where the sun came up.
Eventually, the Yim was upgraded to a mini dryer that was purchased from Amazon, but it couldn’t keep up with the increasing demand.
Thanks to social media groups populated by Cambodian Americans who have lost a taste of home, sporadic orders have ballooned from £10 to £400 a week.
Selling primarily via Facebook and Instagram has also meant that Yim’s business has been a two-way conversation, with customers reaching out whenever they crave delicately deboned chicken wings stuffed with spices and glass noodles or a papaya salad made from pickled raw staple crabs known as salted crab. Yum spent more time glaring cooking videos on her phone and continued to seek out her mother’s instructions, never wanting to turn down students who yearned for culinary professionals or working in their families without time to slowly cook soup. “I just wanted to make every dish they ordered… Suddenly, I got a whole menu,” said Yum.
Yim’s clients on social media include Phuong Nguyen, owner of the Pho de Nguyen restaurant in San Bruno. The two started chatting about how work at the restaurant has slowed since the start of the pandemic. Nguyen and his fiancée suggested that Yim host a three-day pop-up at the restaurant in December 2021. The event attracted a crowd of customers looking for a chance to sample Yim’s cooking in a restaurant. Then Nguyen asked if Yim was interested in taking over the space on the weekends.
Yum knew she could turn to her family for help.
“(My daughter) says she saw how I’ve always struggled to survive, have an income, and put a roof over our heads,” Yim said of her daughter Bing. She works as a maid at pop-up windows and bus tables in a similar way to the way her mother spent her evenings cleaning the floors at the family temple. Her boyfriend and mom also help out in the kitchen.
Soon after accepting Nguyen’s offer to run Sitha’s Khmer kitchen on weekends, Yum began seeing her dining room crowded with customers, including Cambodian Americans traveling from all over the United States. While images of the menu are a little blurry and still carry the same bold white font as when Yim first shared it on Instagram Stories, her cooking now reflects hours of repetition and her fervent dedication to Cambodian cuisine (while still conveying a simple homemade presentation). The dish of raw vegetables that surrounds Brahock Ktis The (spicy pork dip) is organized by color, with a row of green capsicum, lettuce, and pale cabbage cut into translucent strips of white onion. She’s figured out how to fit the time into her schedule to pick up lobster that’s shipped to the airport from Louisiana, as her menu also includes an entire Cajun section inspired by her days in Houston and includes bamboo, toffee, and boys.
Yim is looking forward to a full-fledged restaurant as it continues to grow its customer base, but high food, rent and staffing costs are still major hurdles. Meanwhile, Yim will continue her hectic weeks of home deliveries and shipping out sausages and baked goods amid her many other jobs.
Regardless, she said she will always prioritize her family, who are the driving force behind her restaurant. “I’m not only thinking of myself. I’m thinking about (my children)’s future too. That’s why when I work, I work. I don’t complain, though I’m tired: I still keep going,” she said.
Sitha’s Khmerkitchen is open on weekends inside Pho de Nguyen, 586-A San Mateo Ave. , San Bruno; 415-798-4759, sithaskhmerkitchen.com. Instagram: Tweet embed
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Anthony Shaw writes for TheSixFifty.comAnd the A sister post for Palo Alto Online, covering what we eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.