Scene in South Bend: Cambodian Thai
Carlos De Loera | Monday, April 30, 2018
You never know where you’ll find the best food.
When I was 10 years old, my family made the two-hour trip from Los Angeles down to Tijuana, Mexico to visit my grandpa. I had made this trip with enough frequency to know that the day would be spent walking around the city eating tacos and Mazapanes de Cacahuate, only to end with me sitting in the car for three miserable hours just to cross back into the U.S. However, this trip was a bit different. When my family arrived at my grandpa’s house, I was informed that we would be eating at a Chinese restaurant that night. I was confused, not to mention apprehensive. Chinese food in Mexico?
After some convincing from my mom, I put down my walls, opened up my mouth and tried the food. It was so good. To this day, I still claim the best Chinese meal I’ve ever had was that night in Tijuana. I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t mind the car line at the U.S. border. Okay, that’s a lie. I still hated the ride back, but at least my little tummy was satisfied.
So, when two of my friends told me about a really good Thai restaurant in South Bend, I had a quick second of skepticism before recalling my Mexican Chinese food experience. My older brother introduced me to Thai food years earlier and I enjoyed it, so I was coming in with high standards — or so I thought.
Cambodian Thai easily surpassed my standards and expectations. I ordered the pad see ew. I’m pretty sure my life peaked at that moment. Now I recommend this restaurant any time my friends want to eat out. I love it.
In an interview, Sonita Kham explained the rich history of her family’s establishment. Kham wears many hats at the restaurant, working as host, waiter and cook. Cambodian Thai is the product of the hard work of Kham’s parents, Sokunthea and Vanny Kham. Her mother, Sokunthea, is originally from Cambodia and learned to cook Thai food while in a refugee camp in Thailand during the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s. Both Sokunthea and Vanny — Sonita’s father, also from Cambodia — relocated to Chicago and met while in high school there. The two originally opened a restaurant in Chicago, but weren’t able to make enough money and went out of business. They then relocated to South Bend, where Sokunthea worked as a chef at Notre Dame’s North Dining Hall. However, the always-ambitious Sokunthea felt called to open up her own restaurant. She left her job at Notre Dame and opened up the original Cambodian Thai in 2005. The original location sat only about 22 people.
After seven years, the family took a chance and moved to their current home on Michigan Street in 2013. They felt confident with this decision because of the faith they had in the quality of their food. “All of our food is homemade,” the younger Kham said. “All of our sauces are made in house. We pride ourselves in fresh, flavorful food … it’s just our little twist on Thai cuisine with a mix of my mom’s little touches.”
These are qualities that truly come through in each dish. After eating a plate of pad see ew or some curry, you feel comfortably full as opposed to grossly stuffed. The Khams have these plates down to a science.
Earlier this year, the restaurant was renovated to “feel more open and airy,” Kham said. Before the building on Michigan Street housed Cambodian Thai, it was a bar and later a diner. Kham noted that “I wasn’t going for [an] expensive [look] so that I could put my prices high … I just wanted to get rid of the disgusting carpet.” Since renovating, she constantly receives compliments on the new hardwood floors and overall modern look of the restaurant’s interior.
Above all else, Kham wants people to know that Cambodian Thai is a family business. “The staff is about 10 people — my mom, dad and brother are [in the kitchen] everyday … and everything is made to order,” Kham said. She hopes that “people will enjoy our food that we work so hard for … we love when people love our food and when they keep coming back.”
Come back I shall. So should you.
Find the hours and menu of Cambodian Thai at the restaurant’s website. Cambodian Thai is located at 235 South Michigan Street in downtown South Bend.