At 5 a.m. on Cherry Avenue in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town, the scent of pork wafts from an unassuming, one-story building as the sun rises. Known for pork noodle soup and rice porridge, Phnom Penh Noodle Shack has been a comfort to the local Cambodian community since its opening in 1985. During lunch, there’s often a small crowd outside the door — a mix of regulars from the neighborhood, students from Cal State Long Beach, and even a smattering of curious tourists. The wait tends to be short thanks to the restaurant’s limited menu and the simmering pork broth that’s been ready for hours. Photos of Cambodia and the Tan family line the walls, making diners feel at home in the warm space.
In the early years, Bun Heu Tan and his wife, Maly By, opened the restaurant’s doors at 5 a.m. to serve Cambodian doughnut shop owners who stayed up all night baking and needed a warm breakfast before going home to rest. “You wouldn’t think a noodle restaurant would open at 5 a.m.,” says Rot Tan, Bun Heu’s son. “But our dad, just like other Cambodian refugees, saw entrepreneurship as a way toward the American Dream, and turned it into an opportunity to gain his community’s business and respect.”
“We’ve always been a presence in the community,” says Naran Tan, Bun Heu’s daughter. “When our father started the business people said, ‘Let’s go eat at the loud, old man’s place,’ as that was his nickname. Word of mouth is how we’ve always grown and our regulars are like our family.”
Bun Heu came to the U.S. in 1982, joining his younger sisters who arrived a few years prior. The Tan family left their home in Cambodia along with millions of others who fled the Khmer Rouge. Upon arriving in Long Beach, Bun Heu helped his sister run a restaurant called Chantha Cafe, which had formerly been a Vietnamese restaurant serving dry noodles (mì khô) and sandwiches. He took sole ownership of the 500-square-foot restaurant in 1985, which locals referred to as “the Shack” with just six tables and two cooks. Bun Heu continued to tweak the menu items to resonate with the area’s growing Cambodian population. When noodles and rice porridge turned out to be bestsellers, he focused on those two dishes exclusively.
“Our childhood memories are connected to the restaurant,” says Naran. “Whether it was washing dishes, coming in before the sun rose to help our mom start the soup, or eating meals together in the kitchen with family and staff, this restaurant is our family, our culture, and our food.”
The six Tan siblings grew up in the restaurant, deepening bonds with their family and the larger Cambodian community over the years. “We learned about our heritage through the bowls of noodles coming out of the kitchen,” says Rot. “Soup is a testament to our family, and we’re now teaching our own kids about our rich history the same way we were taught about things in the restaurant.”
When the siblings took over Chantha Cafe from their parents in 2000, they tripled the square footage and doubled the size of the dining room. The original restaurant was built using only a fraction of the lot, so the expansion developed the entire property. The upgrade also ushered in a new name — Phnom Penh Noodle — paying homage to the capital of Cambodia. Though the family had an opportunity to sell the shop in 2004, Bun Heu’s children decided to keep the business in the family. “We’re one of the original Cambodian restaurants in Long Beach and one of the longest-lasting,” says Rot. “Our parents, both of whom are no longer with us, never intended us to go into the restaurant industry or keep the business going. It was our decision to maintain their legacy.” After a decade of continuous growth and recognition, the siblings officially added “Shack” to the restaurant’s name to make the nickname permanent in 2012.
Each morning at dawn, one of the siblings (they rotate turns) starts a big pot of broth for the signature soup, with staff maintaining and replenishing it throughout the day. The broth, a family recipe passed down over 30 years, is made using a combination of pork and beef bones with vegetables and aromatics that simmer together for three hours. Some of the previous day’s soup is added to the new batch for additional flavor. Had the Tans not closed the restaurant for remodels in 2000 and 2012, they would have been serving some of the same soup since opening in 1985.
Diners can choose from rice or egg noodles, or a combination of the two, plus a type of protein. The house special and most popular bowl features a variety of pork parts (sliced meat, ground meat, stomach, and liver) along with shrimp. Other protein options include beef meatballs, beef intestine, quail eggs, chicken, and seafood. Every bowl comes with the choice of having the broth ladled over the noodles or served separately (with a large pork bone). The soup balances the tangle of noodles, evening out the robust flavors of the assorted fresh garnishes and acidic accompaniments.
The restaurant’s other specialty is rice porridge, a comforting bowl of rice cooked in pork broth. Diners choose a protein then layer on garnishes and sauces. Condiments include pickled chiles, fish sauce, sugar, salted soybeans, dried chiles, house-made chile-garlic sauce, and more. Regulars know to get an order of Chinese doughnuts under the bread section of the menu; the light and airy fried crullers are the perfect vessels for dipping into hot broth or porridge.
Today, the business has grown beyond Long Beach with a second location in Cerritos that opened in November 2017. Named Rice String Noodle Shack, the restaurant features an expanded menu with appetizers like lemongrass marinated beef skewers, entrees like fried cornish hen, and Cambodian desserts like shaved ice topped with grass jelly, longan, jackfruit, palm seed, red bean, and condensed milk. In April 2020, Bun Heu’s eldest son, Vannak Tan, branched off with his wife to open a different Cambodian concept called A&J Seafood Shack. The takeout stand serves fresh lobsters wok-tossed with onions and jalapenos, and garlic shrimp with pineapple, just like on Oahu’s North Shore.
“It’s our responsibility to keep what our parents did for us with the restaurant — and keep it going for future generations and our Cambodian community,” says Rot. Cambodian immigrants and their descendants are an important part of the Long Beach community, making up approximately 4 percent of the city’s population and receiving an official Cambodia Town designation in 2007. “We’re honoring our parents, and Cambodian people, by taking ownership and continuing to spread awareness of our heritage,” says Moulino Tan, another of Bun Heu’s sons.
Looking toward the next 30 years, pork noodle soup will continue to be the focus at Phnom Penh Noodle Shack. The hope is that there will always be a large pot of pork broth bubbling at the Shack, and a member of the Tan family stirring it.