In the Battambong province of Cambodia in the early ’70s, Chad Phuong’s grandmother had a stall in their village from which she sold the classic Khmer cold noodle dish nom banh chok. When the brutal Khmer Rouge took over (and made private businesses illegal) later that decade, Phuong’s family fled to a refugee camp on the Thai border, where his mother made rice paper for spring rolls.
But after landing in Long Beach in the early ’80s, Phuong took over cooking duties for his siblings while his mom and stepdad attended night classes at Wilson High School. “I learned at a very young age how to make things using whatever was around. When I was left with my stepsiblings, I had to make dinner, and I had to be resourceful,” Phuong says, noting there were no Cambodian markets in the city at the time. “Food has been in my family forever. It’s always been how we survived.”
These days, Phuong is known to Cambodians throughout the country as Battambong Bob or “The Crawfish Guy.” For the past decade, he has been bringing pop-up Southern-style seafood boils, inspired by the food he ate while working at a slaughterhouse in Texas, to Khmer cultural events around the country under the company name Cambodian Cajun Crawfish.
In 2013, he started experimenting with a separate line of take-home products simply called Cambodian Cuisine, which he sold via Costco-like sample tastings on weekends at Cambodian markets around the city. His jars of complex, traditional Cambodian sauces and pickled goods; packs of paper-thin Cambodian beef jerky and tangy frozen twa ko sausages; and more can now be purchased through an online shop or, more easily, at nearly all of Long Beach’s Cambodian markets.
“The first batch [of sauces] I sold to a store was gone in two to three days—that’s when I knew I was onto something,” Phuong says. “People wanted something that was fresh, organic, local and authentic. They don’t even have to be Cambodian to appreciate it.”
In addition to running two side businesses and working as a surgical technician by day, Phuong is expanding his operations with a series of weekly pop-up dinners to raise money for what he hopes will be the first of many food trucks. He aims to launch the trucks in different Asian-heavy cities and create jobs there by serving Cambodian-American takes on everything from crawfish to steak. “I feel a responsibility to keep my culture alive through food,” the chef says. “I want people to see that other side of me, the struggle we went through as Cambodian-Americans. I want people to know they should try our food because it’s really good.”
On the past few Mondays, Phuong has been serving a different themed meal at the Cambodian-owned Delightful Crepes Café. Some dinners have been traditional (his ban chao is out of this world), while others are inspired by his decade of low boils or his own background as a mixture of several Southeast Asian ethnicities. July 30’s dinner is titled “Summer in Siem Riep” and is an introduction to prahok, the pungent fermented fish paste that is to Khmer cooking what garlic is to Italian.
Future meals may include an appearance by another specialty: Battambong sliders. Around the time he started making and selling sauces, Phuong created a smoky tri-tip using his own version of kreung, the Cambodian spice mix made from lemongrass, kefir lime leaves, galanga and more. Sliced soft and placed on a small burger bun with Swiss cheese, slaw and an Asian-style barbecue sauce, it’s tangy and herbal and unmistakably American.
“I think my food is more SoCal than anything else,” Phuong says. “I love ramen. I love noodles. I love tacos. I grew up here for 40 years and have friends from all walks of life. I can’t possibly just do Cambodian food and be stuck with it.”
For future event information, follow Chad Phuong on Instagram: @battambongbob.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.