“Cambodian Cowboy” serves up Texas barbecue with a twist

In boots, aviators and a cowboy hat, Chad Phuong looks every inch the Texan pitmaster. But his story began far from the arid plains of the Texas Panhandle – in the dirty jungles of Southeast Asia.

It’s been a long journey for the owner and increasingly famous chef of Battambong BBQ, who is now known as the ‘Cambodian Cowboy’.

His love for Texas-style barbecue comes from the source. He initially followed his stepfather to the Lone Star State and worked at a slaughterhouse outside of Amarillo. There, he learned everything there was to know about the noble art of smoking meat. Over time, he adapted 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 drop more red oak onto the glowing embers. Or they can be drastic, as with the pork ‘nak bang’ sandwich, and his Cambodian take on pork belly – a ‘game changer’, he calls it.

“You have ginger, Chinese five spice, teriyaki sauce, a little salt, a little pepper,” he said.

It’s a mark of his skill as a smoker that his unique take on Texas classics has been so widely embraced. People were skeptical at first, he said. He had to give many free flavors of his twa-ko sausage. But now the Cambodian staple, made with beef, pork and fermented rice, has become a fan favorite.

“What’s the Asian guy doing, with some boots and a hat?” he asks. “Like, trying to sell barbecue as a gimmick and stuff. But they didn’t really get my story.”

This story is rooted in the horrors of Cambodia’s killing fields in the 1970s. After his father, a police officer, was murdered by the dreaded Khmer Rouge regime, his remaining family went on the run, escaping barefoot through the jungle on the Thai border, eventually settling in Long Beach, California, home to the largest Cambodian community outside the country. He said he remembers every step of their escape.

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, he has an outing at least three times a week, when he pulls in his regular pop-up events at two Long Beach breweries and a weekly farmers market.

Ever since he put on his boots and that ever-present hat, he’s made a name for himself in his town. He has his regulars and people who drive for over an hour at a time to try his brisket, pork and that twa-ko sausage.

He has plans for a repeat of his wildly successful, sold-out-every-time pop-up — in Long Beach, of course — but when the time is right.

For now, he says, he’s on his way to the next pop-up, hat on and his battered smoker in tow, a cloud of scented smoke trailing behind him. A Cambodian cowboy, riding not into the sunset, but into his own bright future.

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