By Kathy Eaton
with photos by John Butenschoen
Mekong Bistro, Portland’s only Cambodian restaurant, celebrates culture with food and entertainment. Located at 8200 N.E. Siskiyou St., it’s a far cry from the life that the Khut family left behind in war-torn Cambodia in January 1981. The family’s experience parallels Loung Ung’s memoir, First They Killed My Father, according to Saron Khut, who was 10 years old when his mother and two younger sisters accompanied him to Portland.
The children lived with their grandmother in northern Cambodia after their father, a university professor, was killed by the Khmer Rouge and his mother was sent to a labor camp for six months.
“My mother was 28 years old but managed to survive and found her way home to our family,” said Saron. “She’s the strongest person I know; it took tremendous courage risking her life to help us escape.” Starvation was rampant, but since they lived in the northern Cambodian countryside, they had access to some food. With 150 other refugees, the Khuts escaped to Thailand, where they lived in a refugee camp for six months until an uncle could sponsor their relocation to the United States.
According to Oregon State professor emeritus of sociology Dr. Richard Mitchell, the Khmer Rouge, Cambodian communists who carried out widespread genocide in the late 1970s, killed two million Cambodians, or roughly 25 percent of the population. “The Khuts were people without a country,” said Mitchell.
After their family settled in Portland, Khut graduated from Cleveland High School in 1990, attended Mt. Hood Community College, and ultimately graduated from Portland State University in 1996 with a degree in architecture. While attending PSU, Khut worked part-time at a FedEx Ground office, and was permanently hired as operations manager upon graduation. In 2000, he transferred to Intel as operations manager, where he worked for the next decade. When the department shuttered in 2010, he used his severance to open Portland’s first Asian sports bar, Good Call Sports Bar and Grill on Southeast Division. Khut opened Mekong Bistro in March 2012, meeting his Laotian wife, Jai, when she crashed a party at his new restaurant. At weekend events, Khut can often be found onstage, where his 18-month-old daughter Alison also shows a penchant for performing.
Dr. Mitchell describes Mekong Bistro as a vital center of cultural activity on the eastside. In a very child-centered culture, celebrants dressed in vibrant costumes include adults and kids of all ages. Extended family is the nature of this community, according to Dr. Mitchell: “They celebrate life despite their circumstances. Their multiculturalism shines through.”
While Khut cooks traditional Cambodian dishes, his mother, Saroeun, now age 70, continues to shop Asian markets and prep ingredients in the restaurant’s kitchen. Ma Khut is the spiritual leader for the Cambodian community and is well known and respected, according to Dr. Mitchell. The Khuts treat their customers like family.
Khut created a place for the community to gather so people could learn about different cultures. “We’re not segregated by age or ethnic groups,” he said. Delivering hospitality is important to his family. He’s also partnered with Golden Leaf Education Foundation to raise money to build schools in Cambodia.
Portland’s Vietnamese community celebrates family functions, such as weddings, birthdays and graduation parties, at the Bistro. Celebrities have also stopped by, including CNN correspondent Maria Cardona, whose husband Bryan attended Madison High School, and singer Ted Nugent, who dropped in for authentic cuisine after a concert. The event space can accommodate up to 300 people and is generally booked on weekends.
Open daily until midnight for travelers flying into Portland International Airport or workers seeking a good meal after a late night shift, the menu is extensive. Last summer, Khut partnered to supply a food cart in Prineville, Pad Thai Yeah. They’re considering expanding cart operations to Corvallis. “Our food would appeal to university students,” said Khut.
When he’s not in the kitchen preparing authentic Cambodian cuisine, Khut plays golf, harboring a secret ambition to become a professional golfer. Mekong Bistro is his legacy, and serving the community in Northeast Portland drives this 47-year-old chef-owner. Whatever he pursues, Khut has never forgotten his roots and his desire to serve the entire community. “Portland is my home and this is my neighborhood,” he said.
Visit mekongbistropdx.com or call (503) 265-8972 for more information.