When Socheath Sun moved from Virginia to San Diego 12 years ago, she had never worked in restaurants, but she felt hospitality was her calling. She loved to entertain and entertain, and dreamed of throwing parties like her Cambodian parents did, welcoming friends and family into their home.
There was just one problem.
“Nobody wanted me,” Sun recalled. “They were like, ‘You have no experience.'”
Unfazed, she kept applying and eventually found a job at the Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights. It was a new neighborhood restaurant at the time, and the community and camaraderie she felt was instantaneous.
From there, she moved to her now-closed sister restaurant Tiger Tiger, where she began venturing into the kitchen. She convinced chef Aaron LaMonica to add a pork belly banh mi to the menu, and he, in turn, convinced her to join his kitchen crew.
It was hard to leave her job as a cushy waiter for a harder, lower-paying job, but it was there that she learned wood-fired cooking and French techniques from her mentor, LaMonica, who died in 2016.
“He was like, ‘Soc, I don’t know what you’re doing, but every time you make food, I can tell you that you’re so careful and it just comes naturally to you, you should really pursue it'” , Sun remembers telling him.
With LaMonica’s help, she had found her calling. After working as a home chef for a marketing company and having free reign over the menu and its ingredients, she decided to start her own business in 2019.
Angkorian Pikestaff is a pan-Asian pop-up restaurant that plays on the classics. Once or twice a week, Sun will post a one-dish menu on Instagram. She takes orders for about 24 hours, and customers pick up their takeout orders a day or two later from a kitchen in the downtown San Diego commissary.
The restaurant is named after the warriors of Angkor Wat, the capital 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 pointed tip.
As for Sun, her secret weapons are creativity and culinary breadth. She cooks all kinds of Asian dishes, 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 showcasing lesser-known Asian dishes. Recently, she cooked Macanese pork bun sandwiches, Cambodian sour beef sausages and a vegan “lechon” burrito kawali sisig, her take on a Filipino fried pork dish.
“These are things that I grew up eating, things that are super nostalgic to me,” Sun said. “I just sort of make it my own.”
Dishes dazzle on Instagram – golden fried chicken on a bed of shimmering hand-pulled noodles, jalapeno-spam sauce cascading over a country-style fried steak loco moco sandwich, vegan fried “fish” nestled in a baguette with pickled vegetables and lemongrass.
So far the reception has been great and she hopes to open a traditional restaurant this year. She has built something of a cult following on Instagram and receives positive feedback from Southeast Asian veterans as well as people new to Cambodian cuisine.
And this is a priority for Sun: to make dishes that respect traditions while inviting uninitiated palates.
“I make food a little more palatable, where it’s not directly like punching you in the mouth or kicking you in the gut, but immersing you in the flavors of fermented fish paste or shrimp paste or things that are super raw and super hot,” Soleil said.
When they’re not cooking, the city’s Sun DJs specialize in Southeast Asian funk and disco. Recently, she performed at the San Diego Asian Film Fest and an AAPI Heritage Month event hosted by Teros Gallery and Pixley’s Oddities in University Heights.
Whether it’s work or play, Sun’s love for his culture is evident.
“That’s what I do,” she said. “I love introducing people to cool Asian food and cool Asian music.”