Review: Why I'm obsessed with the Cambodian dishes at this tiny, chef-driven restaurant

Andi Berlin
Arizona Republic

I could tell that the chef Thai Kambar was preparing our order, because there was a fierce pounding coming out of the kitchen. It echoed over the peppy Cambodian pop music playing in the little dining room decorated with a couple of easy chairs and a wall-sized poster of the mystic temples at Angkor Wat.

She was smashing together wildly sour shreds for my papaya salad, which I'd ordered at the counter from her husband Lee, the restaurant's only other employee. 

The dishes began to appear, one by one, a tornado of bright flavors and colors.

The famous Khmer pork and vegetable platter called prahok ktiss arrived first, the fermented ground pork dip framed by wheels of sliced cucumbers and raw eggplants. Then came a spicy cucumber salad swimming in a fiery fish sauce, sprinkles of dried Thai chiles floating in the salty elixir. Finally, my made-to-order papaya salad was presented with a decadent scoop of chilled vermicelli rice noodles and thick slabs of cold pork meatballs.  

And that was just the salad course.

Prahok Ktiss, October 12, 2021, at Thaily's, 444 E. Chandler Blvd., Chandler, Arizona.

The food reflects a personal journey

From her tiny counter-service restaurant in Chandler, Kambar has crafted an exciting, original take on one of the world's most interesting cuisines. She is a master of Cambodian sour and spice, and uses them to create intoxicatingly potent flavors, in combinations I've never tasted before. They were so good, they sent me on a weeks-long, obsessive deep dive into the tangled history of Cambodian cuisine.

But, here's the thing, Thaily's isn't a Cambodian restaurant.

The Kambars call it Cambodian-Arab fusion, but even that doesn't tell the whole story. 

She is Khmer, the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia, a Southeast Asian country with a complicated food history marked by French colonialism and the violent Khmer Rouge regime that wiped out nearly a quarter of the country's population and many of its culinary traditions.

She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and moved to the Phoenix area with her family when she was eight months old. Her aunt Lakhana In runs the state's most prominent Cambodian restaurant, Reathrey Sekong, where she's revived many of the elite dishes that became less common in Cambodia in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, like stir fry lok lak beef and the royal fish custard amok that's steamed in a banana leaf. The two women are related through In Tam, a famous Cambodian politician who served as prime minister in 1973, shortly before the Khmer Rouge took power. 

While Kambar also cooks Cambodian food, her approach is more casual and freewheeling than her aunt's, and she focuses mostly on street food dishes.

Kambar's husband is also a refugee. Originally from Baghdad, Iraq, he arrived in the United States in 1999, after spending five years in Amman, Jordan, where his family fled to escape the brutal government of Saddam Hussein. 

Thaily's owners Thai Kambar and husband Lee Kambar pose with some of their food, a combination of Cambodian and Arab finger foods representing their backgrounds, in Chandler on April 8, 2021.

The two met at a bar in Phoenix where he asked her to dance. They've been married for 16 years.

Kambar feels Middle Eastern cuisine is spicier than Cambodian, and says she learned to cook Iraqi dishes by watching cooking videos on YouTube. At Thaily's, named after their 13-year-old daughter, they serve not only Cambodian food and Middle Eastern plates, but also Hawaiian Spam musubi and spicy shrimp ramen. She even makes and sells her own fish sauce and pickled mustard greens pre-packed in glass jars.

These seemingly disparate dishes reflect their lives and, quite simply, things the chef loves to eat.

Global dishes feel less cohesive, but exciting nonetheless

Spam musubi and Spam and egg musubi inside Thaily's, in Chandler, April 8, 2021.

The menu is posted directly behind the counter and each day Lee goes through with a black marker and crosses out any dishes they're not serving. On a recent visit that was the wonton noodle soup, an ear of corn slathered with green onion and coconut sauce and baklava, which had just sold out.

One menu staple is the gyro — puffy flatbread stacked with fat slabs of shaved lamb and beef and dynamite sticks of neon pink pickled turnips slathered in fresh cucumber yogurt. The sandwich was one of the better gyros I've had in recent memory. The meat was soft and freshly cut, and I could see myself ordering a few for takeout. 

Another surprisingly good bite was the Spam musubi, basically fried Spam sushi.

Gryo Sandwich (front) and Fried Steam Pork Cake, October 12, 2021, at Thaily's, 444 E. Chandler Blvd., Chandler, Arizona.

Some of the eclectic dishes were less successful. The rice paper spring roll stuffed with cold shrimp is fine, but there are more interesting things on the menu. And the spicy ramen tastes like decked-out instant noodles topped with a layer of cold shrimp, an overcooked egg and Vietnamese bean sprouts. It's tasty, but reminded me of something I'd whip up in the kitchen at 2 a.m. 

The most perplexing dish is the sticky rice cake. Stuffed with pork and mung beans, it's steamed and then deep fried. It looked like a sushi roll and inside, the glutinous, savory center has the flavor akin to a Taco Bell bean burrito. It came with a packet of lemongrass-flavored Sriracha sauce from a Seattle company called Fix. The green sauce was spicier than regular Sriracha, and had a fruity burn. 

Thaily's is a chef's playground, which explains its brilliance, and also its pitfalls. 

If you're not careful, you could end up with a disjointed mishmash of cold Cambodian salads, a yogurt slathered gyro and a steaming bowl of pork belly and hard-boiled eggs in sweet soy sauceHowever, if you stick to the Cambodian side of the menu, you're likely to enjoy one of the most original and exhilarating meals you've ever eaten.

Modern Cambodian street foods shine 

Papaya Salad Platter, October 12, 2021, at Thaily's, 444 E. Chandler Blvd., Chandler, Arizona.

Known for kroeung, a feisty lemongrass and galangal spice mixture, Cambodian cuisine incorporates the flavors of neighboring Vietnam and Thailand, bringing in stir fries with sweet soy sauce from China and curries with Indian roots.

One standout dish at Thaily's is the spicy curry double chicken platter, which features a bowl of phenomenally rich Cambodian red curry that Kambar spices with turmeric and cayenne to give it an even deeper orange color and heat. With a backbone of sweet coconut milk, the fiery sauce features a glistening, fatty layer of red oil. It's served with a butterflied chicken thigh that's caked with lemongrass and air-fried to crispy perfection. The combo is plated with a fried egg, thin sprockets of cucumber and a single piece of lettuce for garnish.

For the similarly named spicy crispy curry chicken, the fried chicken thigh is rubbed in a mild curry powder and placed atop a simple salad of greens, cherry tomatoes, carrots and bean sprouts. A plastic to-go tub of sweet fish sauce dressing is served on the side. 

The chicken preparation on both dishes is masterful. Each slice of chicken features a layer of decadent fat sandwiched between crispy skin and succulent meat. Eat each piece with a sprig of cilantro for a little extra brightness. 

And if it's available, make sure to order the salaw machu eggplant, a hearty green jalapeño soup that's mouth-puckeringly sour thanks to lime juice and fruity tamarind powder — like a Cambodian version of green chile. The spicy broth is packed with fatty pieces of slow-cooked beef and halved Thai eggplant bulbs. The seeds from the eggplant spill out and float around the viscous broth, adding a faint crunch.

Subtle, but powerful updates to classic dishes

Spicy Curry Double Chicken Platter, October 12, 2021, at Thaily's, 444 E. Chandler Blvd., Chandler, Arizona.

Kambar's tweaks to the classic dishes are subtle but powerful. 

At Thaily's, the papaya salad, typically presented on a platter by itself, was paired with Cambodian pork patties and a pile of cold rice noodles. To avoid a long wait, call ahead to ask ahead for this preparation. The thicker style of vermicelli was closer to udon in texture, and about the same size as the fruity shreds of green papaya and carrots in the salad. The papaya, pork and noodles come together in a beautifully crisp, saucy bite that takes an already fabulous dish to new heights. 

My favorite dish of all, prahok ktiss, should be recognized as one of the world's great vegetable dips. The first time I tasted it, I was in Long Beach. The Southern Californian city has America's largest Cambodian population in the country, and I was there for a weekend-long food tour of the city's Khmer restaurants. During a particularly memorable meal, we were served prahok ktiss and the owner encouraged us to pick fresh lime leaves off the restaurant's tree to add to the platter. 

The prahok ktiss platter at Thaily's is presented with sliced cucumbers and little Thai eggplants, mild and spongy, that you eat raw. There's a sharp contrast between the clean, raw vegetables and the deeply savory pork dip, flavored with the famous fermented fish paste called prahok. 

The vegetables offer the perfect counterpoint to the dip, made using just a touch of the prahok, along with coconut milk, garlic and Korean chile paste. She adds the gochujang to give it a deeper red color and a background of spicy funk. What look like peppercorns and taste like peas are actually tiny eggplants, which offered a juicy snap. Every element here feels turned on its head. At Thaily's, a simple dish of raw vegetables can offer the most intriguing surprises. 

Some chefs use lavish tasting menus to showcase their culinary whims. Sushi masters express their worldview in elaborate omakase dinners. Thai Kambar offers an array of dishes inspired by her life, and leaves their navigation up to you. The setting might be casual, but the flavors are groundbreaking and the experience is deeply personal.

If you delight in sampling a chef's artistic visions, then Thaily's should be on your list.  

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Thaily's 

Where: 444 E. Chandler Boulevard, Suite 1, Chandler.

Hours: Noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday.

Price: Khmer dishes $7.50 to $8.50; spring rolls $7.50 to $8.50; salads $6.50 to $8.25.

Sound: Music is quiet which allows for easy conversation. 

Vegetarian/vegan options: Not much to choose from here, unless you're willing to have a platter of naan bread with vegetables for dinner. 

Recommended dishes: Spicy cucumber salad, prahok ktiss vegetable platter and the spicy curry double chicken platter with curry and chicken thigh.

Details: 480-927-3865, facebook.com/Thailys-Restaurant-111245297708568.

Stars: 3 (out of 5)

Should you go?

5 — Drop everything

4 — Yes, and soon

3 — When you get a chance

2 — Maybe, if it’s close

1 — You can do better

0 — Not worth your time

Reach reporter Andi Berlin at amberlin@azcentral.com or 602-444-8533. Follow her on Facebook @andiberlin,  Instagram @andiberlin or Twitter @andiberlin

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