For townies like me, walking into the new Emeryville Public Market might tug at your nostalgic heartstrings for an East Bay of days past. The Public Market was like town square for a lot of us. It was where I learned what a food hall was: the neon signs, the trays with steaming foods from Afghanistan, Thailand, Korea, the land of BBQ Time, the smells calling us from the ball pit when we were younger, the arcade and the UA theater when we were older. I saw the O.J. Simpson chase here on a giant, clunky TV sitting next to my mom and a circle of folks on plastic chairs. Food was cheap and fast and you always ran into someone.
Now the entire area is under renovation, and when I walked in the other day with my boyfriend wanting to show him my old-school hangout, we were met with a place that looks like any new school hangout: an industrial-chic food court. Most stalls are empty but in concept the new market is inspired by the old one, growing the few international food stands there now to about 20. And as I learned last night at Nyum Bai, many of them will undoubtedly be good ones.
Nite Yun is the chef behind Nyum Bai. She fled Cambodia with her family to refugee camps in Thailand, eventually landing in Stockton, home to one of the largest Cambodian populations in the U.S. Two years after she started a pop-up offering the family foods she grew up on, she’s opened a temporary space in the market and employs seven people. Last night’s rice-themed dinner was the final event of La Cocina’s first restaurant week, highlighting successful graduates of the kitchen incubator program focused on women and immigrants. Nite was accompanied by Chef Sophina Uong, a long-time Bay Area chef who is soon to open Mestiza SF.
The food was fun and satisfying— a dance between comforting elements like coconut, chicken porridge, noodles, rice in many forms and the sharp flavors of ginger, chiles, pomelos, and fish sauce. The regular menu at Nyum Bai is noodle and rice based with items ranging from $9 to $11.
Nyum Bai’s menu is probably a good example of the type of food that will be at the new Public Market: fresh, made with better ingredients, still pulling from the talent of the Bay Area’s immigrant population. The space was built out when she moved in, so hopefully other mobile entrepreneurs will also be provided with affordable brick and mortar opportunities.
However, it’s challenging for a small businesses to make that type of food quality affordable, and the question of how public the Public Market will be remains. The language that codes who is welcome in these new public spaces is also important— I stumbled on a 7×7 article announcing the new project that read, “Now Emeryville is catching up, with the gentrification of Public Market, a civilized food court that aims to capture the East Bay’s foodie crowd.” Civilized? What was uncivilized about the old one? That it was affordable? That kind of language is so colonial and ancient it makes me want to stomp on all the plastic balls in the ball pit. (That’s not a metaphor, just a satisfying image). Also, does foodie crowd include kids? I hope so, because families need public spaces— plus homegrown vegan ice cream maker Mr.Dewie’s is moving in and everyone should feel excited to try their delicious ice cream, not just Pixar employees.
Stories like Nite’s are the positive ones in redevelopments like these, and the stories that need to be told right now: women immigrant entrepreneurs creating jobs, doing what they love, feeding us good food.
Nyum Bai at the Public Market, 5959 Shellmound St.