First Taste

Cambodian in Chandler: A Free-Spirited Kitchen Arrives in the East Valley

Grilled beef skewers from Thaily Restaurant in Chandler
Grilled beef skewers from Thaily Restaurant in Chandler Chris Malloy
Lately, restaurants have started to feel somewhat normal again. As this feeling has settled in for me, so has another: Against the odds, many restaurants opened in the middle and later days of the pandemic have been really impressive. Recently, a creative new mom-and-pop has added something major to Chandler: both a new option for Cambodian food and a kitchen of unlikely fusion.

Actually, Thaily’s Restaurant is one-of-a-kind for anywhere in the Valley, a kitchen serving a mashup of Cambodian and Arab foods.

The 10-seat restaurant cooks traditional Cambodian and Arab plates: baklava and cha kreung, gyro and prahok ktis. Other preparations are rooted in fusion, like a Cambodian curry with components from the Middle East.

Thaily’s owners, Thai and Lee Kambar, a wife-and-husband team, are from Cambodia and Iraq respectively. Their restaurant’s name, Thaily, is a fusion of their names. It’s also their teenage daughter’s name. The Kambars opened Thaily on Thaily’s birthday, April 15.

Most dishes lean Cambodian, with a few Arab staples in a supporting role.

“I can cook both,” Thai says. “Every now and then, we’ll throw in some Arab soups and stews, but on the set menu we have gyros and pitas.”
click to enlarge Lee preparing beverages in part of the Thaily kitchen. - CHRIS MALLOY
Lee preparing beverages in part of the Thaily kitchen.
Chris Malloy
Thai, a former physician’s assistant to a retina surgeon, heads the kitchen, where her mom often helps. Thai says she’s limited because they don’t have a vent. Becoming a professional cook has been a natural progression for Thai, who has been known among friends for her Cambodian-Arab cooking, and who recently cooked in her style for 78 guests at Thanksgiving.

Thai learned Iraqi recipes from her mother-in-law. She grew up with Cambodian food. In fact, her aunt is an owner of Reathrey Sekong, the Cambodian restaurant in central Phoenix.

“I try to throw both fusions,” Thai says. “It’s not your normal, typical food, like my aunt’s. I try to fuse most of my food.”

Food aside, the hospitality at Thaily’s is first-rate. Unobtrusively, with genuine care, Lee pops out from the kitchen to check on tables often. He proudly delivers dishes. You might wait a bit for yours, but the place has a persistent rare warmth.

Thrillingly, the menu has range and will take at a few visits to plumb unless you roll by with enough people to fill the place, including the corner couch.

Whatever you order, don’t sleep on the gyro no matter how sweetly the stews and stir-fry call your name. It’s unexpectedly great and can hang with just about any gyro in town.
click to enlarge One of town's great gyros, plated at Thaily. - CHRIS MALLOY
One of town's great gyros, plated at Thaily.
Chris Malloy
Shaved lamb and beef aren't tucked into a floppy, uniform pita. Rather, they're arranged as a row of cut, angled pita wedges heaped with juicy meat and wobbling dollops of yogurt spiked with cucumber and garlic. Green olives and pickles add salinity, fresh acid, and crunch to the rich meat and cool yogurt.

This is how Lee grew up eating gyro in Iraq. Maybe we should all be eating gyro this way.

On the Cambodian end, grilled beef skewers, sach ko jakak, are also great. They have a pleasant chew and crisp edges crushed by heat and a deep mahogany hue where not deeply charred. Each chunk is fragrant to the core with lemongrass. Rice sidekicks, rich with ghee.

Generally, Thai’s fused dishes aren’t always 50-50 mashups. Many are Cambodian with a touch of Arab influence, often just a spice or two. But some do approach 50-50.
click to enlarge Thai's curry combines culinary influences from Cambodia and Iraq. - CHRIS MALLOY
Thai's curry combines culinary influences from Cambodia and Iraq.
Chris Malloy
An example: Thai’s orange curry bobbing with carrots, skinless potatoes, and shreds of chicken thigh.

“The curry I make is in the middle of Cambodian and Arabic spices,” she says. “If it’s just a Cambodian curry, it’s more on the sweet side with more coconut milk. On the Arabic side, they use more turmeric.”

Hers riffs on the curries of Cambodia, but also a specific curry prepared by her mother-in-law, one with okra and eggplant.

Thai’s hybrid curry has a rich, throaty singe but keeps balance. It’s not all that sweet, minimally creamy, and intensely perfumed with lemongrass and turmeric, the latter painting an amber ring on the white bowl. The potatoes are big and smooth, tender but not fall-apart-soft. The chicken is just sopping with sauce. All said, it’s an enjoyable, warming dish.

During lunch, regulars stop into the dining room. They check the specials if they haven’t already checked on Facebook or Instagram. The aroma of pork belly and twa ko sausage and stir-frying morning glory greens climb through a slot above the divider built to cordon off the kitchen — necessary for a restaurant built from a former ice cream shop.

Lee emerges often: ringing up an order, mixing a Vietnamese iced coffee, serving a Cambodian snow cone, making sure everyone is gravy. He also likes to pass out squares of a syrupy, stellar baklava, one lavished with crushed pistachios.

This is a great opening for the East Valley. It's an inspired, original independent restaurant that, in our post-pandemic world, is the kind of place easy to enjoy.

Thaily's Restaurant. 444 East Chandler Boulevard Suite 1, Chandler; 480-927-3865.
Tuesday to Saturday noon to 8 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday. 
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy