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.