It has been a long journey for the owner and increasingly celebrated chef of Battambong BBQ, who is now known as the “Cambodian Cowboy.”
His love of Texas-style barbecue comes right from the source. He originally followed his stepfather to the Lone Star State and worked in a slaughterhouse outside of Amarillo. There, he learned all there was to learn about the noble art of smoking meat. Over time, he adjusted his recipes, using the spices and flavors of his childhood to create a unique BBQ palate.
Changes to his dishes — which he now serves in Southern California — can be subtle, like using Cambodian pepper on his brisket, which he smokes for 17 hours, periodically setting alarms to toss more red oak on the glowing embers. Or they can be drastic, like with his pulled pork “nak bang” sandwich, and his Cambodian take on pork belly – the “game changer,” he calls it.
“You got ginger in there, Chinese five spices, teriyaki sauce, little bit of salt, little bit of pepper,” he said.
It is a mark of his skill at the smoker that his unique take on Texas classics has been so embraced. People were skeptical at first, he said. He had to give out plenty of free tastes of his twa-ko sausage. Now, though, the Cambodian staple, made with beef, pork and fermented rice, has become a fan favorite.
“What’s the Asian guy doing with, with some boots and a hat on?” he asks. “Like, trying to sell barbecue as a gimmick and stuff. But they didn’t really understand my story.”
That story is rooted in the horrors of the killing fields of 1970s Cambodia. After his father, a policeman, was murdered by the feared Khmer Rouge regime, his remaining family fled, escaping through the jungle barefoot to the Thai border, eventually settling in Long Beach, California, home to the biggest Cambodian community outside of the country. He said he remembers every step of their exodus.
Phuong became a full-time pitmaster during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he lost his job as a surgical assistant and plowed his family’s savings into a custom-built smoker. Now smoke-stained and well-traveled, it gets an outing at least three times a week, when he pulls up to his regular pop-up events at two Long Beach breweries and a weekly farmer’s market.
Since pulling on his boots and that ever-present hat, he’s made a name for himself in his hometown. He has his regulars, and people who drive for well over an hour each way for a taste of his brisket, his pulled pork, and that twa-ko sausage.
He has plans for a bricks-and-mortar iteration of his hugely successful, sell-out-every-time pop-up – in Long Beach, naturally – but when the time comes.
For now, he says, he’s on his way to the next pop-up, hat on head and towing his battered smoker, a cloud of fragrant smoke following him. A Cambodian cowboy, not riding into the sunset, but toward his own bright future.