When Chad Phuong’s Toyota Tundra hits the Kim Sun Kitchen parking lot every Saturday morning, a faint trail of gray smoke marks its way.
It escapes from a spout emerging from an imposing metal chamber hitched to its truck. It looks rusty and rough, but inside its spooky exterior is a treasure trove of slowly cooked meats: brisket, tri-tip, ribs, pork belly, sausage, chicken.
At the helm of the timber juggernaut is Phuong, self-taught pit master and mastermind behind Battambong BBQ, a Texan-style pop-up barbecue meet Cambodian serving Southern-style stewed meats with a Cambodian twist.
“It’s a bit of fusion food, but still mostly Texan-style barbecue, but merging it with my Cambodian cuisine,” Phuong, 49, said of his concept.
The Cambodian influence in Battambong’s menu is more evident in its side dishes. Cambodian corn, for example, is a mixture of white corn made with coconut milk, a pinch of chives and a pinch of sea salt. Vegetarian “coleslaw” is a mixture of pickled cabbage, cucumber and carrots. The pickled papaya in the three-pointed sliders adds a delicious zing and a light crunch.
Its popular homemade barbecue sauce contains “Asian spices,” though the details are under wraps, Phuong said.
With his meats, however, the influence is more subtle, obtained by a paste of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, galangal root and garlic that he will sometimes rub on his tri-tip, his breast or his chicken. . Most of the time, it sticks to the proven friction of coarse black pepper and sea salt.
“In Texan style barbecues, they use kosher salt or iodized salt. I use sea salt. So it’s very, very forgiving, not so salty, ”Phuong said.
When Phuong opens the wide metal doors of his smoker, often to remove breast or tri-tip samples for new customers, soft plumes of smoke billow, bathing the small pocket of North Long Beach on Cherry and East Market Street. where her pop-up is posted with the heady scent of campfire.
Those who approach Phuong often hail him as the “Cambodian cowboy”. The black felt hat at the top of her dark hair and the cowboy boots that complement her uniform are probably a contribution to the catchy nickname.
“They [patrons] I’ve never seen an Asian guy barbecue in his whole life… And they’re like, “Hey, you’re that busty Cambodian cowboy. My mother told me to come here, ”he said. “This is how I got my nickname.”
Although Phuong’s trip with Battambong BBQ just marked his first birthday in September, cooking and food preparation has been a part of Phuong’s life since he was a young boy, helping his family to hunt and search for food. food in the countryside of Battambang, Cambodia, which inspired the name of its pop-up.
“My mother mainly went to pick herbs and spices along the riverbank or in her garden. My grandfather and uncle taught me to hunt, to catch crab and to fish, ”said Phuong. “This is how I learned to cook, to make my own fire, to use a machete to collect firewood.
Phuong didn’t learn the craft of Texan-style barbecue until more than a decade after he and his family moved to the United States as refugees from the Khmer Rouge. He was nine when he landed in Long Beach in the early 1980s. But by then his understanding of cooking, using basic ingredients and seasonings was well established.
At 21, Phuong and his father moved to Hereford, Texas. He took a job an hour’s drive away at a slaughterhouse in Amarillo, where he credits his knowledge of cuts and meat preparation.
He quickly discovered the Texans’ craze for barbecuing and smoking meat. On the dinner invitations of friends from work, Phuong saw that the simmered brisket, tripe and ribs were almost always on the table and he marveled at the dedication required to produce the tender meat – the early hours of the morning. , delicate preparation, constant temperature monitoring.
On night outings to nearby cornfields, Phuong and his friends sipped beer while talking while smoking, each claiming that they knew how to do it best.
“I found out that most people used a lot of dry rub, they weren’t fond of sauces, stuff that I used to grow up here in Southern California and be Cambodian,” said Phuong. “So I learned about the different dry friction they had and the different types of wood they used. “
Texans prefer oak. Phuong too. Hickory and mesquite? Too strong, they dominate the meat. But the oak, Phuong said, is subtle and enhances the friction of black pepper and sea salt.
“Oak gives you that beautiful red color on your chest,” he said. It refers to the much admired smoke ring, a reddish stripe that appears just below the surface of the meat.
Phuong’s own entry into smoking began by helping his ex-girlfriend’s grandfather. He mostly watched, helped prepare the ingredients and asked a lot of questions. Eventually he was allowed to try it out for himself and found he was good at it.
Returning to Long Beach five years later, Phuong said he didn’t have much time to smoke. He was helping out with his family business, a textile store that produced womenswear for big clothing companies like JC Penney.
“In Long Beach, the Cambodian refugees, they either have a sweatshop, a donut shop or a liquor store,” Phuong said.
In time, Phuong left his family home and began a career in the medical industry, as a surgical technician. In his spare time he cooked a lot. He eventually embarked on catering, from Cambodian and Vietnamese cuisine to Italian and American cuisine. He also started his own Cambodian and Cajun sauces and seasonings business which he named Cambodian Cuisine.
But in March 2020, the pandemic cost Phuong his job as a surgical technician. After dedicating nearly 20 years of his life to this work, it was a blow. But Phuong saw an opportunity to dive back into his Texan years – to the core.
He remembered that his friend was sitting on a six-by-four foot metal smokehouse and offered to buy it for him.
“It’s a tank,” Phuong said. “So I bought the smokehouse but didn’t really do anything. I had to clean it up, make everything work, do a lot of testing inviting my friends and family because I wasn’t used to [using] a big old smoker.
Watching Phuong work today, it looks like he’s been doing it for decades, skillfully multitasking between stoking the fire, cutting slices of tender meat, and preparing every dish from meat platters to sliders to nachos. , with sauces and sides.
Always keen to play and experiment, Phuong also started hosting themed barbecues in his pop-up. On November 13, his menu included lemongrass, panko-fried frog legs, grilled squid, shrimp and meatballs with smoked Tvako (Cambodian sausage) and P’ong T’ear G’oon, or Balut, which is a fertilized duck egg.
Phuong said he then aimed at Vietnamese street food.
“I can be creative,” Phuong said of his love for cooking. “Different proteins, different vegetables, different arrangements that I can put on a cutting table and then on a plate… it’s like art to me… I am one with what I do. “
Battambong BBQ can be found in the Kim Sun Kitchen parking lot at 5449 Cherry Ave every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. until it is full. Follow Puong and his pop-up on Instagram to stay up to date with the latest pitmaster news.