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Grilled salmon with shredded green mango. Catfish steamed with coconut milk and collard greens, wrapped in a banana leaf. These used to be items you'd need to schlep over Highway 17 to get. No longer. Making a bold entree to the Scotts Valley dining scene this summer is Jia Tella's, specializing in cuisine from Cambodia.
"Everything on our menu are things I love," says owner Jason Revino who modelled the restaurant after a favorite dig in San Jose, Chez Sovan. Revino says he saw demand for a casual restaurant with outdoor seating and good, unusual food right here in Scotts Valley. The timing felt right, so he opened one.
The restaurant's interior is casual with warm, earthy tones. Artwork by local artists is featured on the walls - currently up are pieces by Leah Parks and Amy Glover Martin. Food ordering is done at a walk-up counter with chalkboard menu, and dining is available inside or out on the umbrella-clad patio.
We decided to check out Jia Tella's one balmy Friday evening. Less than a month after opening, the place was fairly busy with a steady line at the ordering counter. We chose patio seating which was great for the kids. Taking their cue from two of the owner's children who could be seen hanging around and clearing tables, my kids played hide and seek while waiting for their food to arrive. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice or care.
The children's menu consists of a "Bento" box style dinner ($4.95) with a choice of kabob or fried chicken. Mine chose the latter which was accompanied by rice (brown if you choose), spring rolls and bottomless fountain drinks. The chicken was hot, crispy and well-seasoned and the portion was ample for children under 12. The adults started off with the Tomato Pineapple Sour Soup ($8.95 small/$11.95 large). A small pot easily allows for 4 small bowls. We chose shrimp for the soup meat which was combined with large chunks of tomato, pineapple, lemon grass, and lots of minced garlic. The "sour" flavor comes from a subtle touch of tamarind. The soup was light and healthy, yet full of flavor, making a nice first course.
For heartier fare we chose an order of the Stir Fried Ginger ($8.95 small/$11.95 large) and the Amok with catfish ($8.95). I personally was enamoured with the Amok. Artfully wrapped in a banana leaf pinched closed with toothpicks, the inside was a steamed melange of lemon grass, kaffir limes, catfish, collard greens, coconut milk, fish sauce, galangal, and eggs to hold it together. The delicate flavors blended in perfect harmony with a taste of coconut milk one moment giving way to a hint of lime. The moist Amok could easily be eaten alone or paired with rice.
The Stir Fried Ginger was exactly what it says - a huge plate of julienned ginger stir fried with a choice of beef, pork, chicken, or tofu. We chose the beef. My husband is a ginger fanatic, so was most pleased with the abundance. The "special sauce" for the stir fry was savory and well-seasoned. I personally found that four or five bites were enough, as the ginger was still firm enough to pack a spicy wallop.
To ensure that his restaurant closely resembled its Silicon Valley inspiration, Revino hired the owner of Chez Sovan to be his consultant, set up his menu, and train his chefs, Channy Plong, Chia H. Lam and Neng Pov - all authentic Cambodian chefs. Of the 50 items on Chez Sovan's menu, 20 found their way to Jia Tella's. Tweaks include the offering of brown rice as a choice and all sauces being vegetarian-based.
Jia Tella's small bar hosts a large TV screen running ESPN, with wines from local wineries and beers on tap (again, all Revino's favorites). Dessert options range from a gelato bar at the counter (boasting gelato from The Latest Scoop in Berkeley) or a Cambodian Style Fried Banana or Tropical Mango and Sticky Rice (both $6.95), ordered from the menu. We opted for the fried banana - a vertically sliced banana dipped in batter and deep fried. The hot, crispy exterior gave way to a soft, sweet, center. A scoop of coconut gelato on the side provided a nice hot/cold juxtaposition.
The great thing about dining at Jia Tella's is that you can just get up and leave when you're finished. No need to wait around for a server to bring you a bill, since you pay up front at the counter. Same goes for mid-meal needs such as extra napkins, plates, etc. - they're all out for diners to help themselves. This was strategically designed for lunch diners keeping an eye on the clock.
And the name? Well, that's an amalgam of the owning family's names - Jason and Theresa, and their children Jacob, Mia, Sophia and Isabella. If you want to figure out that puzzle, the answer's on their website - www.jiatellas.com.
At A Glance:
What: Jia Tella's
Address: 18 Victor Square #D, Scotts Valley 95066
Hours: Sun-Thurs 11am-9pm; Fri. and Sat. 11am-10pm