Chef Kim Nath Nou So, who goes simply by Chef Nath, is a bit of a superstar in our little food world. The five-time Souper Bowl champ and popular caterer behind Nath's Inspired Khmer Cuisine has long been celebrated for her fresh and creative meals featuring the flavors of her native Cambodia. But what people really love her for, beyond the beautiful dishes, is the absolute joy she brings to cooking, which can be experienced at an ongoing weekly pop-up at BODY of Santa Fe through October.
On Saturday nights, diners have the opportunity to pull up a chair for an
organic, vegetarian meal with Nath. Of the two nightly seatings, 5:30 and 8:00 pm, I recommend choosing the earlier one to be sure you'll have access to the whole menu.
Just a note here: I ate at an August version of the pop-up which featured a prix-fixe menu with two options for a starter and main; the new pop-up series is a la carte and features an expanded menu, and while I have yet to eat my way through it, rest assured I will.
On the night I attended with friends, we chose the later seating and discovered half the prix-fixe menu had already been eaten through. This wasn't too upsetting as I had a feeling I would be happy with pretty much anything the gregarious chef put in front of me. For starters, the options were fresh vegetarian spring rolls, which were sold out, and a fermented tea leaf salad ($12). Nath was upset that she had run out of the rolls and invited us over to her house the next day so she could make us some. I had heard she is as generous as she is talented and the invite proved that to be true.
We assured her we had been fine with the salad and, honestly, I was overjoyed because I probably would have ordered the spring rolls and missed out on one of the best salads of my life. Made of fermented tea leaves tossed with goji berries, Napa cabbage, romaine lettuce, carrots, grape tomatoes and sunflower sprouts, it was crunchy and fresh and packed with flavor. Having never tasted fermented tea leaves, I couldn't tell if the richness of flavor came from those or from the sesame vinaigrette (with a squeeze of lime). Sweet, sour, salty, crunchy … this salad had it all. Sorry, fresh rolls—move along.
"I'm still experimenting with and learning about cooking only plant-based dishes," Nath shyly admitted. If that salad was "still learning," then we have a lot to look forward to.
Our next choice of course was between pad thai or green curry. Again, the early birds had made quick work of one option, so green curry ($20) was on our menu. As we waited, Nath arrived at the table with what little of the remaining pad thai she had on hand.
"For sharing," she said.
It was great to have a taste of the Thai standard; her take was as original as ever. Instead of being immersed in the tamarind-based sauce, Nath's noodles were lightly coated in it, almost dry, but sticky enough to attract a pleasing amount of peanut crumbs.
The green curry arrived and, again, no one was upset about not having a choice. The large bowl of mild curry was studded with pineapple, squash, green beans, bell peppers and sweet Thai basil. The curry was rich but not overpowering, the broth just thick enough to soak into the kernels of rice served on the side. I have to say, cooked pineapple is not usually a thing for me, but after tasting its sweetness with the slow spice of curry, cooked pineapple has since become a thing for me.
If you can't make it to one of Chef Nath's Saturday popups, she stocks BODY's deli case (available 8:30am-7pm) with organic vegan Thai dishes. The day after I heard this, I was there, standing in front of the to-go case and once again kicking myself for letting the early birds take their pick. It appeared there were a variety of choices but, as I arrived after the lunch rush, all that was left was pad thai ($10.95) and fresh rolls ($6.95). What luck! The two things I had missed out on were now in my hands!
Mind you, though these are made fresh, after sitting in a fridge case and then being mangled by my own hands, Nath's fresh-made foods obviously outdo them. But they were still delicious. The fresh rolls of thin rice paper snuggled around a surprising package of mostly greens and carrots, less noodles, were light and refreshing. The pad thai container looked small but as I picked it up it laid heavy in my hand. Once home, I poured the contents into a hot frying pan and was shocked to see how much goodness had been packed in: rice noodles, broccoli, snap peas, greens and tofu–easily enough to feed two. Or one, in my case, because when it comes to anything Chef Nath makes, I'm not sharing.
Chef Nath at BODY Café:
5:30 and 8 pm Saturday Oct. 12.
BODY of Santa Fe,
333 W Cordova Road,