A woman stands in a restaurant holding up a metal tin of uncooked kebab meat
Vila Pho, co-owner of Bayon Temple, with uncooked kebabs marinating in lemongrass. Photo by Annalise Freimarck.

When Vila Pho emigrated from the Banteay Meanchey province in Cambodia to the U.S. in 2003, she knew no one and took a job as a computer technician. It wasn’t her ideal job, but it paid the bills. She took English classes while she dreamed of opening a Cambodian restaurant with dishes steeped in lemongrass and fish sauce.

In 2021 after moving between jobs, a friend offered her the chance to become co-owner of Bayon Temple in Campbell. She seized it.

“I (wanted) to share and let people get to know more about Cambodian people,” she told San José Spotlight.

The restaurant, named after a late 12th to early 13th century temple in Cambodia, sits in an unassuming strip mall at 2425 S. Bascom Ave. sandwiched between Campbell and San Jose, the inside adorned with painted murals of historic Cambodian life.

There, Pho serves some of her favorite traditional dishes she grew up with, including cha kroeng, an aromatic, lemongrass-marinated dish with bell peppers, chili and peanuts. Customers can choose between chicken, tofu, beef or pork.

A bowl of orange curry with chicken, bell peppers and potato.
The samlaw curry dish includes a creamy coconut milk base, flavored with aromatic curry spices that include galangal. It is filled with tender chicken, bell peppers, onions, potatoes and carrots. Photo courtesy of Bayon Temple.

She prepares each dish with care, hand rolling the crispy egg rolls stuffed with carrots, taro, cilantro and shallots and hand cutting all the meat in the dishes.

Her signature dish is amok, a mousse-y white fish spiced with lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal and fish sauce, which Pho hand-wraps with banana leaf and steams with coconut milk and collard greens.

Pho, who’s often at the restaurant seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., doesn’t run it without help from her daughter, Alicia Top. Top works in the restaurant every weekend and some evenings in between attending California State University, East Bay.

Top said as a kid, she didn’t see her culture represented much and often waited to eat until after school where her mom had whipped up some generations-old dishes. Her favorite is the lemongrass-marinated kebabs served with a side of pickled vegetables, a traditional dish during Cambodian New Year.

“It’s just so nice to know that people enjoy our food. Food is actually like a really nice expression of what we are,” Top told San José Spotlight.

Before Pho took over the restaurant, it was a Cambodian restaurant named Chez Sovan for more than 30 years. Chez Sovan’s Campbell location closed during the pandemic and Pho decided to keep the menu mostly the same, but changed the name. All the Bayon Temple dishes are nearly authentic, with a little less fish sauce but without prohok, a stinky fermented fish, to avoid the smell.

A woman wraps fish in a banana leaf
Vila Pho, co-owner of Bayon Temple, hand-wraps her amok, a signature Cambodian dish made with white fish and spiced with lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal, in a banana leaf. Photo by Annalise Freimarck.

Opening and running the restaurant hasn’t been without strife. Pho and Top said business has been slow lately, due to the pandemic’s lasting effects and ongoing construction on Bascom Avenue as neighboring San Jose builds new homes along the street.

But Pho isn’t giving up.

“I still keep myself going because I hope,” she told San José Spotlight. “I hope right now we just bring all the customers back or customers that already come and try and then they give (it) a chance to come back and back.”

Top said her mom has never stopped working on her dream.

“Any type of business is risky and I feel like you are putting a big risk of failure or success and (by) just putting our foot into the door. (It’s) something that I probably say I’m proud of my mom for doing,” she said.

Sheema Vinod, in her 50s, and her family are regular customers. Vinod was introduced to Bayon Temple a few years ago by her friend who used to volunteer in Cambodia and said it was the first time she tried Cambodian food. She was pleasantly surprised with the food’s lasting zing and said it even prompted her to add the South Asian country as “a stop on the list” where she aspires to travel.

Two men sit at a restaurant table with Cambodian dishes
Amit Chathoth, 20, and his brother are regulars at Campbell’s Bayon Temple. Their favorite dishes include the lemongrass kebabs. Photo by Annalise Freimarck.

Amit Chathoth, Vinod’s 20-year-old son, calls Bayon Temple a hidden gem and said he loves the taste of the restaurants’ kebabs. He and Vinod hope the restaurant stays in business for a long time.

(The) people here (are) very welcoming, very friendly, very easy to talk to. You can tell that they’re passionate,” he told San José Spotlight. “They keep it well maintained and you can taste that in the food too. You really get a sense they love the cuisine, they love the culture.”

Contact Annalise Freimarck at [email protected] or follow @annalise_ellen on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know of a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected].

Bayon Temple

Located at at 2425 S. Bascom Ave. in Campbell

(408) 628-4363

Open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.


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