Angkorian Pikestaff is a pan-Asian pop-up restaurant — and you can only order on Instagram
Chef-owner Socheath Sun cooks Southeast Asian cuisine with a nod to her Cambodian roots
When Socheath Sun moved to San Diego from Virginia 12 years ago, she had never worked in restaurants, but she had a strong sense that hospitality was her calling. She loved hosting and entertaining, and dreamed of having parties like her Cambodian parents did, welcoming friends and family into their home.
There was just one problem.
“No one wanted me,” Sun recalls. “They were like, ‘You have no experience.’”
Unfazed, she kept applying and eventually found a job serving at Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights. It was a new neighborhood restaurant at the time, and the community and camaraderie she felt was instant.
From there, she moved to its now-shuttered sister restaurant Tiger Tiger, where she began venturing into cooking. She convinced Head Chef Aaron LaMonica to add a pork belly banh mi to the menu, and he, in turn, convinced her to join his kitchen staff.
It was hard to leave her cushy server job for a harder job that paid less, but it was there she learned woodfire cooking and French techniques from her mentor, LaMonica, who passed away in 2016.
“He was like, ‘Soc, I don’t know what it is you do, but anytime you make food, I can tell you pay so much attention and it just comes natural to you, you should really pursue it,’” Sun remembers him saying.
With LaMonica’s help, she had found her calling. After working as an in-house chef for marketing company, and having free rein over the menu and its ingredients, she decided to start her own business in 2019.
Angkorian Pikestaff is a a pan-Asian pop-up restaurant that plays on the classics. Once or twice a week, Sun will post a single-dish menu on Instagram. She takes orders for about 24 hours, and patrons pick up their to-go orders a day or so later at a commissary kitchen in downtown San Diego.
The restaurant is named for the warriors of Angkor Wat, the capital city of the Khmer Empire, who defended the land and its people between the 9th and 15th centuries. Their weapon of choice was the pikestaff, a long staff topped with a sharp spike.
As for Sun, her secret weapons are creativity and culinary breadth. She cooks all kinds of Asian cuisine, from Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea and other countries, and caters to both meat eaters and vegans.
It’s not often you see Uyghur-style dapanji chicken stew or vegan Burmese samosa soup on a menu in San Diego, but Sun specializes in highlighting lesser-known Asian foods. Recently, she cooked Macanese pork chop bun sandwiches, Cambodian sour beef sausages, and a vegan “lechon” kawali sisig burrito, her take on a Filipino deep-fried pork dish.
“It’s stuff I grew up eating, things that are super nostalgic for me,” Sun said. “I just kind of make it my own.”
The dishes dazzle on Instagram — golden fried chicken atop a bed of glistening hand-pulled noodles, jalapeno-spam gravy cascading down a country fried steak loco moco sandwich, vegan fried “fish” tucked into a baguette with pickled vegetables and lemongrass sate.
So far the reception has been great, and she’s hoping to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant sometime this year. She’s built a kind of cult following on Instagram, and gets positive feedback from Southeast Asian elders as well as people who are new to Cambodian cuisine.
And that’s a priority for Sun — making dishes that respect traditions while inviting uninitiated palates.
“I make food a little more palatable, where it’s not straight like punch you in the mouth, or hit you in the gut, but easing you into the flavors of fermented fish paste or shrimp paste or things that are super raw and super pungent,” Sun said.
When not cooking, Sun DJs around town, specializing in Southeast Asian funk and disco. Recently, she played the San Diego Asian Film Fest and an event for AAPI Heritage Month hosted by Teros Gallery and Pixley’s Oddities in University Heights.
Whether working or playing, Sun’s love for her culture is evident.
“This is what I do,” she said. “I love introducing people to cool Asian food and cool Asian music.”
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