Their concept, called Riceboxx, highlights both Cambodian and Filipino cuisines without fusing them, and also experiments with modern takes on traditional dishes. The important part, Son says, is that “when you bite into [the food], it still tastes like mom’s cooking.”
Amon and Son met while working at Vinh Xuong Bakery, and bonded over similar visions of running restaurants where they could share their cultures’ cuisines; Son’s family is Cambodian, and Amon’s family is Filipino. Growing up, they both noticed the lack of their cultures' restaurants in the Denver food scene. “It’s not like L.A. or New York City,” Son notes, “but it’s getting there. I’ve seen a big difference in the past few years.”
Son says she’s always wanted to cook Cambodian food in honor of her family and heritage and to make her parents proud. Her parents survived the Cambodian genocide of 1975 to 1979 and during that time walked to the Thai border, where they lived in refugee camps for ten years. She is the only one of her three siblings to be born in the United States. “They call me the American because I was the lucky one to be born here,” she says. “My dream is to have my own restaurant, to be my own boss.”
Cambodian food has a distinct flavor profile inspired by the country’s natural resources. “Our food is primarily based on fermented fish,” Son explains. A small carp known as trey riel in Khmer is caught in vast quantities during the rainy season. The fish are then filleted, salted and aged until they become prahok, a fermented fish paste that adds a savory taste — somewhat similar to shiitake mushrooms — to many meals. Kreung, a spice mix predominantly made of lemongrass but also including galangal, garlic and kaffir lime leaf, is another widely used flavoring.
The pandan cookies included in the Meal Deal are made by Amon, and the recipe she and Son created took inspiration from pandan leaf, used in both Cambodian and Filipino cooking. The baked treats are a type of crinkle cookie, a popular dessert in the Philippines. Amon started making her own crinkle cookies last May at the suggestion of her brother, who asked her if she could learn to bake them with ube (purple yams).
Her ube crinkle cookies are made with halaya, a Filipino jam made from the ube root. It tastes similar to sweet potato, Amon says, and it’s typically made during the holiday season to eat with other desserts such as shaved ice with sweet beans and coconut shavings. Her family makes their own halaya. When she combined that jam with the cookies, her brother and his friends encouraged her to try to start a business. Amon sold 1,000 cookies during her first sale.
She has now expanded Lariza’s Bakery to specialize in both ube and chocolate crinkle cookies as well as chocolate chip cookies, tiger butter (swirled chocolate-peanut butter fudge) and lumpia, a Filipino egg roll. “My family’s recipe is really good, and I think others should try it, too,” she says, explaining that she has an aunt who is the main lumpia chef at the bakery. Her aunt and other family members often help her with large baking orders that sometimes take six hours just to bake — not to mention that the dough has to sit for 24 hours before that.
At the same time, neither chef is afraid to try something new. For example, Son says Num Pang, a Cambodian sandwich, will likely be on the menu for one of the upcoming Sunday Meal Deals. Similar to Vietnamese banh mi, Son’s Cambodian version will be made with beef marinated with lemongrass and topped with cucumber, pickled daikon, carrots, Thai basil, green onions and garlic aioli. “It’s more modern and targets younger people,” she says. But it still retains the essence of the place it comes from.
“This food comes from meals my family would make at home,” Amon continues. “These are just things that are homey to us.”
If everything goes well with their monthly Meal Deal, the duo will offer additional pop-ups throughout the year, possibly expanding to a food truck and hopefully, one day, to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. To follow their work, visit @ChefPannah and @LarizasBakery on Instagram. And keep an eye out for their next Meal Deal offering, which is likely to sell out fast.