Chez Sovan is hard to figure out at first. The Cambodian restaurant is packed for lunch with a crowd that seems to be dominated by white-collar—and white-skinned—workers. The unremarkable bunkerlike building is located on Old Oakland Road is a less-than-stellar neighborhood. So where are all these people coming from and why are they coming here?
I can’t answer the first question, but I know the answer to the second: food and service.
As far as I’ve found, Chez Sovan is the only Cambodian restaurant in Silicon Valley (but whenever I write something like that a reader tells me a I missed one, so bring it on; we need more Cambodian restaurants). Cambodian food is pretty similar to Thai food: lots of coconut milk-based curries, sweet and sour flavors, lemongrass and kaffir lime, and grilled and marinated meats.
Chez Sovan is open just for lunch. It’s amazing that a restaurant could survive for more than 20 years being open for just a few hours a day. More power to them. The menu is pretty short and sweet. A few curry dishes. Grilled and fried items. Soups. Salads. Dessert is a bowl of candy.
Inside, the restaurant sports light green walls adorned with Cambodian art and paintings. There are no lights to illuminate the restaurant, so it’s less than bright, but I found that rather relaxing. The kitchen with its smoking and steaming woks is visible as you walk to the back of the restaurant. There’s a more upscale location in Campbell, too.
The dining room is presided over by Brian Nong, the owner, cashier, waiter and occasional dishwasher. Nong dashes from table to table to chat up regulars and greet newcomers. He’s moving and talking so fast, it can be hard to keep up, but diners soon fall into an easy groove with him. He makes eating at Chez Sovan fun. And the food makes eating there even better.
The star of the show is the amok ($9). Think of it as a Cambodian tamale. The steamed, banana leaf-wrapped package of coconut milk and catfish is a custardy mess, but it’s a truly delicious dish redolent with kaffir lime. It’s listed as an appetizer, but could work just as well as an entree. Trust me. Order it.
The meaty, deeply marinated chicken skewer ($2.50 per stick) is another good opener. It’s tender and well blistered from the grill. They make beef, too, but I didn’t order that. The fried-rice noodle dish ($8.50 small, $10.50 large) sounds different, but it’s really just Chez Sovan’s version of pad thai—decent but not remarkable.
After the amok, I would say the homey chicken curry ($8.50 small, $10.50 large) with potatoes is the best item I tried. The coconut milk broth is thick and creamy and full of aromatic flavors. It tastes great spooned over steamed rice.
The chicken and rice soup ($8.50 small, $10.50 large) comes disassembled. The soup broth is steeped in lime juice and lemongrass and floats a generous portion of diced chicken. Add some steamed rice from the accompanying bowl, and it makes for a good bowl of soup.
The chicken salad ($8.50 small, $10.50 large) is refreshing and light, with shredded cabbage and chicken dressed with fish sauce and lime.
Good, too, is the coconut milk-based fish stew ($8.50 small, $10.50 large); it’s thick and rich and loaded with chunks of catfish, potato, eggplant and carrots. The pale-orange broth is the color of Thai iced tea; they actually go quite well together. It’s got some heat and a creamy, coconut milk glaze. If you like eggplant, even better is the cha trop ($8.50), a stir-fried eggplant dish that is rich and savory without being heavy or oily.
I’ve heard about Chez Sovan for years as one of San Jose’s best hole-in-the-wall eateries, and now I get what all the fuss is about. It’s a friendly neighborhood restaurant with a devoted following and a solid menu of satisfying food. That’s a recipe for success.