Long Beach chef Chad Phuong’s life sometimes feels like a triptych, three independent panels in time that collectively portray a full scene. There is Cambodia, the place of his birth, where he bore witness to genocide before escaping with his mother. There is Long Beach, where he arrived as a refugee and found a whole new life. And there are the grazing fields of Hereford, Texas, considered one of the nation’s centers of beef production. Phuong has channeled all three into his current life as the community-dubbed Cambodian Cowboy, a meat-slinging American Cambodian character who smokes and grills from a mobile setup that he attaches to his Toyota Tundra, selling food under the name Battambong BBQ.
“You know how many cows there are to humans in the panhandle [of Texas]?” Phuong asks while opening his smoker to let out a plume of red oak haze. “1.2 million to one. Nobody knows that — there’s nothing out there but cattle, man. That’s where my love of barbecue started. Hunting on the weekends, and basically every meat — cow, deer, whatever we caught — went on the barbecue.”
Those years have served him well. Today Phuong is cooking up some of the most inventive weekly barbecue in Southern California, merging heartland American meats with not-so-subtle Cambodian influence. Next to brisket (which is hinted with lemongrass) sits twako, a Cambodian sausage with fermented rice that is typically deep-fried but here is smoked. There are witty plays on Cambodian num pang sandwiches, where daikon is replaced with green papaya salad and traditional meat is replaced with smoky proteins; there’s also a dish called the Long Beach nachos, an ode to Cambodia, Texas, and Mexico all at once. The food is deeply unique, unquestionably Long Beach, and only possible because of Phuong’s own trisected journey.
Texas in particular is meaningful for Phuong, a place that defined some of his most formative years — and his current pop-up menu. His family chased work from Long Beach — the only American place Phuong knew after arriving from Cambodia — to Hereford and eventually back again, but they stayed long enough to taste the meat and smoke so pervasive in the state. That experience, though, was always buttressed by two very specific longings: the sight and smell of the ocean, and the flavors of Cambodian sauces.
When it comes to barbecue, Texas is the stronghold for the almighty dry rub. Outsiders often find themselves searching in vain for sauces that are so common to other cuisines, especially Cambodian food. Steaks and brisket and ribs were in easy supply, Phuong found, but where was the tuk phahok, the common fermented fish sauce that is a staple at every Cambodian table?
Phuong has long sought deeper connections with his Cambodian ancestors. He knows, for example, that his family comes from a food background, particularly farming. His grandfather ran a small agricultural operation in Cambodia, right where the Mekong River floods the plains to produce some of the world’s best rice. Phuong looked up to his grandfather immensely, a man capable of not only cooking but growing his own food, and those early memories remain indelibly ingrained in him. He thinks also of the place, a land that is green and lush and filled with water buffalo. It is the same place that changed the trajectory of his family forever.
In the late 1970s, Phuong’s biological father was murdered by the Khmer Rouge for serving as a military officer under the then-toppled Khmer Republic of Cambodia. Before long, he and his mother had to flee on foot, traversing 60-plus miles from the Battambang province to the Thailand border to the Khao-I-Dang holding camp. From there, they — like so many other Cambodian families — came to the shores of Long Beach, where his mother met his stepfather and where he was raised.
“Being a refugee...” Phuong says, pausing to process his thoughts. “Being a refugee is extremely hard, and you learn to take nothing for granted — nothing. I’m 50 years old, so going through the pains of PTSD — literally seeing bazookas coming at you in the middle of the night, the constant machine-gun fire — it haunts me. I still have nightmares, but I’ve learned that I can’t just push it away. I can’t take anything for granted. I had to take care of my siblings from the get-go, so throughout my life, I’ve been cooking and healing.”
Through these different phases of life, food has been a north star for Phuong. He learned how to make tortillas and salsas from the Mexican abuelita of a former girlfriend, and came to understand different cuts of beef from spending time working in a Hereford slaughterhouse. He has soaked up knowledge from some of the Long Beach Cambodian elders who also managed to escape the Khmer Rouge. Taken together, these insights have helped him create a sense of resilience and belonging and, with it all, the birth of a new midlife career: pitmaster on wheels.
“I worked nearly every line in that slaughterhouse,” Phuong said. “Oxtail to tripe to prime cuts. As a refugee, you know, we were from the countryside; we really didn’t know all the different cuts of meat, especially beef. So when I came back and we started having those backyard parties, it was kinda cool to tell my friends, ‘No, no, this is T-bone,’ or ‘This is porterhouse. This is the good stuff.’”
Backyard parties are a staple for any Long Beach resident connected with the Cambodian community, where bowls of beef curry soup and stacks of baguettes sit next to Vietnamese nem chua, and pomegranate seeds are tossed in fish sauce with sugar and Thai chiles. It’s natural for Phuong’s Texas tastes to mix with a bit of Cambodian flair in an environment like that, though for years the Cambodian Cowboy persona was really little more than a weekend affectation among friends.
It wasn’t until the pandemic, when Phuong lost his job at a surgery center in Irvine and took up hardcore backyard smoking on a friend’s old unused system, that food became about more than just community. Within months, the untrained cook had gone from a weekly cord of red oak wood and a rusty grill to a once-a-week setup at Kim Sun Kitchen’s parking lot in North Long Beach. It was there that Phuong really took Battambong BBQ — an ode to his roots in the Battambang province of Cambodia — to the people.
As it turns out, Phuong’s unique journey is resonating with a dedicated base of hungry Long Beach eaters eager to see the world through the Battambong BBQ lens. Instead of creamed corn, Phuong offers up coconut corn, made with creamy coconut milk. Instead of mac and cheese, there is a play on garlic noodles that comes from his days of hosting noodle carts at weddings and parties.
Phuong has even rethought his classic tuk phahok, that chimichurri-like sauce made from fermented fish, chiles, and herbs. He laces his version with smoked jalapenos, serranos, habaneros, and garlic, rounding out the sauce with fermented fish, anchovy sauce, lemongrass, salt, eggplants, lime juice, and herbs. The result is an incredibly earthy, smoky take on the classic Cambodian side sauce and a companion for dipping Phuong’s tri-tip or brisket. And yes, Battambong BBQ does offer barbecue sauce, albeit a hoisin-based version layered with vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil.
It’s all kind of Cambodian, kind of Texan — served at the sort of party that definitely feels like Long Beach. And now, just a couple of short years in, Phuong has found his way from laid-off backyard cook to a man with a food truck and multiple weekly serving spots, including the Bixby Knolls Farmers Market and Ten Mile Brewing. “There is no question I want to eventually get a brick-and-mortar,” Phuong says. “That’s why I’m working my butt off. Tips from the food I serve is what bought me the food truck, and I am happy that the truck will allow me to do bigger gigs. Ultimately the dream is to go bigger, to open on Anaheim [Street in Cambodia Town] and go from there.”
Until then, fans can find Phuong replaying the story of his life over coals at Battambong BBQ’s weekly pop-ups at Ten Mile Brewing (1136 E. Willow Street in Signal Hill) every Friday from noon to 9 p.m. and at the Bixby Knolls Farmers Market (at the southeast corner of Atlantic Avenue and East 46th Street) every Thursday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Menu updates and details can be found on the Battambong Instagram.