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City's first Cambodian restaurant opening in University Heights

Buffalo is getting its first Cambodian restaurant from a first-generation Cambodian-American who wants to share her family’s culinary heritage.

Yey’s Café will be located at 3225 Main St., in University Heights, the former Grateful Grind.

Owner Jennifer Lay is a former financial analyst who turned to catering, working out of the kitchen at Dnipro Ukrainian Cultural Center on Genesee Street.

Her family fled Cambodia in the 1980s, escaping a nation devastated by the Khmer Rouge. Born in Rochester, she got a finance degree from the University at Buffalo. “But I just wasn’t happy with a desk job,” she said. “So I thought of the times when I was really truly happy, when I was younger, working with my grandmother, catering large events in the Cambodian community in Rochester.”

Yey is the Cambodian word for grandmother, her restaurant’s name an homage to the woman who taught her the heart of Cambodian cuisine.

“I thought about what it would be like to share a piece of my culture, connect with my roots and my family that way,” she said. “So this is basically a tribute to my family for all the trials and tribulations they faced as Cambodian refugees.”

Her restaurant will be a quick-serve counter service place, with bowls of jasmine rice, rice noodles or greens topped with Cambodian-inspired toppings, vegetables and sauces. Yey’s will offer chicken, beef, and seitan, a meat substitute made from wheat gluten, marinated in kreung, a Cambodian spice paste made every day from lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal, turmeric and other spices. “We marinate that for a day, so it packs a lot of flavor into that tiny noodle bowl,” she said.

Swift service will be a point “because in that area I know there’s a lot of students, always on the go, so they can come in and out easy.”

Num pang, sandwiches akin to the Vietnamese banh mi, are filled with pork belly, beef, chicken or seitan along with pickled carrots and daikon radish, cilantro and chile mayonnaise.

Another specialty will be babaw, rice porridge with house-made rice noodles topped with shredded chicken or tofu scramble, salted soybeans, bean sprouts, fried garlic, cilantro and lime.

There’ll also be specials, like fried chicken wings doused in Cambodian red curry.

There will be no alcohol. But Lay said she would be serving Grateful Grind’s nitro cold brew along with her own specialty coffee, done Cambodian style with milk and tamarind sauce.

Look for an October opening, if all goes well.

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