Family bonds are at the heart of Oakland’s Cambodian Street Food

Tuan Bun and her nephew Jeremiah outside of Cambodian Street Food in Oakland, California.
Tuan Bun, right, and her nephew Jeremiah outside of Cambodian Street Food in Oakland. Photo: Amir Aziz

Last Wednesday, Tuan Bun was cooking at her sister Malinda’s restaurant, Cambodian Street Food on Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland. The building resembles a house, and its outer facade is covered in a vibrant mural depicting an apsara, a dancing female spirit, looking at a beautiful sun setting over the iconic Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat.

As Tuan cooked, her nephew Jeremiah tended to a long line of customers waiting to pick up their orders of traditional Cambodian dishes such as beef larp, heavily seasoned with peppers and lime. The beef was finely ground, each bite containing a refreshing burst of spice and zest. Paired with chopped lettuce and a few clippings of mint, the light yet filling dish serves as a perfect lunchtime meal. Others waited for well proportioned and decently priced dishes of Mongolian beef and salaw machu kreung, a traditional soup brimming with a mix of tangy and spicy flavors, all of which can be eaten on the go (and before the most recent outdoor dining ban, on the restaurant’s cozy outside patio).

For Tuan, love and care is what makes the food served at Cambodian Street Food so delicious. “What matters most is when people come and eat at the shop they feel loved,” she said. “We serve the food that we would want to eat at home.”

Tuan’s younger sister, Malinda Bun, owns the restaurant, which has become a well known spot in the San Antonio neighborhood. The Oakland native opened the restaurant two years ago after a family friend with a vacant property asked if she’d like to start her own business. For Malinda, owning a restaurant that served her cherished family recipes made sense — after all, she’d be following in her mother’s footsteps.

“My mom is a huge factor to why I opened,” Malinda said. “She volunteers a lot at Cambodian [Buddhist] temples to cook meals, and she’s really known for her cooking. People always offered to pay.”

Cambodian Street Food patrons ordering and taking out food to go. Photo: Amir Aziz

Traveling to Cambodia and tasting the local street food also inspired Malinda to bring the cuisine to Oakland. “I was born and raised here so I was foreign to my homeland. Just checking out the food made me think, ‘Man, I wish we had this type of street food in America,’” she said.

The restaurant’s growing popularity is the product of years of recipes being passed down from one generation of Buns to the next. Malinda and her siblings grew up cooking alongside their mother and grandmother who were adamant on passing down family traditions through food.

“My mother had a very poor childhood and she would go to different villages and watch the different cooks work,” said Malinda. “She brought what she learned to Oakland and taught us.”

Family is now at the heart of her business. In lieu of permanent employees, various family members rotate shifts.

Having taught them the ways of Cambodian cooking, Malinda and Tuan’s mother, Mach Ham, continues to be an intrinsic part of the restaurant’s success. When Malinda has to work at the restaurant, her mother takes care of her kids. “She’s wise, determined — she’s just a beautiful spirit and very caring,” said Malinda.

When asked whether running a business together has brought the family closer, Tuan said no. “We have always been close. We have kids now and we work other jobs, but we stay close. That’s how we were raised.” While both sisters said they might not always agree on everything, at the end of the day their family prioritizes making the restaurant a success.

A to-go container filled with beef larp and a disposable plastic cup filled with Thai iced tea from Cambodian Street Food in Oakland.
Flavorful, spicy beef larp and Thai iced tea from Cambodian Street Food. Photo: Amir Aziz

The family’s tantalizing meals have consistently received rave reviews. When asked why local news outlets have published stories about her restaurant, Malinda told Nosh there is a lack of Cambodian representation in Oakland’s food scene. (Another notable Cambodian restaurant is the acclaimed Nyum Bai in Fruitvale.)

“There’s a lot of Vietnamese, Chinese and Hispanic restaurants but there aren’t a lot of Cambodian restaurants [In Oakland],” Malinda said. “People still come to us and ask, ‘Well what kind of food is Cambodian food?’ That’s when we have to say we’re a neighboring country from India, Vietnam, Laos and say it’s different but similar.”

Due to the lack of a large Cambodian community in Oakland, it was tradition for the Bun family to drive out to Stockton or Fresno, both of which have large communities, for Cambodian New Year, which occurs in mid-April. “At our restaurant, you don’t have to wait until April to get some New Year’s type food,” said Malinda. “You just pull up to Cambodian Street Food and there it is.”

Cambodian Street Food patrons ordering and taking out food to go.
Cambodian Street Food patrons ordering food to go. Photo: Amir Aziz

The Bun family has carved out their own cultural space in East Oakland, which Malinda considers to be their very own “Little Cambodia” — which in this case is the network of Cambodian family-run businesses like Camchilao food truck and the glass companies operated by Malinda’s uncles, who taught her that nothing is more valuable than your time — a lesson that she’s put into action now as a small business owner.

During the pandemic, the Buns have used their time to help feed vulnerable community members via relief programs like World Central Kitchen, while also remaining connected to other Cambodians through their Buddhist community network.

Malinda is proud of the impression that she and her family, through the business, have made on their neighborhood. “I went to Garfield Elementary down the street from my restaurant. This is my home,” she said. “My neighbors told me, ‘You brought life to this neighborhood, you brought your culture here.’”

Cambodian Street Food is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday; closed Tuesday.