When Chad Phuong’s Toyota Tundra rolls into the parking lot at Kim Sun Kitchen every Saturday morning, a light trail of gray smoke marks his path.

It’s wafting from a spout poking out from a hulking metal chamber hitched to his truck. It’s rust-stained and rugged looking, but inside its grim exterior is a treasure trove of slow-cooked meats: brisket, tri-tip, ribs, pork belly, sausage, chicken.

Commanding the wood-burning behemoth is Phuong, self-taught pitmaster and mastermind behind Battambong BBQ, a Texas-meets-Cambodian style barbecue pop-up serving up Southern-style slow cooked meats with Cambodian flair.

“It’s a little bit of fusion food, but still mainly Texas-style barbecue, but fusing it with my Cambodian cuisine,” Phuong, 49, said of his concept.

The Cambodian influence in Battambong’s menu is most obvious in his side dishes. The Cambodian corn, for instance, is a white corn concoction of coconut milk, a dash of chives and a pinch of sea salt. The veggie “coleslaw” is a medley of pickled cabbage, cucumber and carrots. Pickled papaya in the tri-tip sliders adds a delightful zing and slight crunch.

Chef Chad Phuong holds his tri-tip slider with a green papaya and carrot pickle slaw as he works his Battambong BBQ pop-up in North Long Beach Saturday, November 6, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

His much-raved-about homemade BBQ sauce features “Asian spices,” though the details are a secret, Phuong said.

With his meats, however, the influence is more subtle, achieved by a lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaf, Galanga root and garlic paste he’ll sometimes rub on his tri-tip, brisket or chicken. Most of the time he sticks to the tried-and-true coarse black pepper and sea salt rub.

“In Texas style barbecue they use kosher salt or iodized salt. I use sea salt. So it’s very, very forgiving, not as salty,” Phuong said.

When Phuong opens the wide metal doors of his smoker, often to pull out samples of brisket or tri-tip for first-time patrons, soft plumes of smoke billow out, bathing the small pocket of North Long Beach on Cherry and East Market Street where his pop-up is stationed with the heady, campfire scent.

Those who approach Phuong often greet him as the “Cambodian Cowboy.” The black felt hat atop his black hair and cowboy boots that complete his uniform are a likely contribution to the catchy nickname.

“They [patrons] never saw an Asian guy that’s doing barbecue in their whole life….And they’re like, ‘hey, you’re that Cambodian Cowboy that does all the brisket. My mom told me to come over here,’” he said. “So that’s how I got my nickname.”

Chef Chad Phuong stands in front of his meat smoker while working at his Battambong BBQ pop-up in North Long Beach Saturday, November 6, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Though Phuong’s journey with Battambong BBQ just marked its first year anniversary in September, cooking and preparing food has been a part of Phuong’s life since he was a young boy, helping his family hunt and forage for food in the countryside of Battambang, Cambodia which inspired the name of his pop-up.

“My mom would mostly go and gather herbs and spices along the riverbank or her garden. My grandfather and my uncle would teach me how to hunt, catch crab and fish,” Phuong said. “That’s how I learned to cook, how to make my own fire, how to use a machete to collect firewood.”

Phuong wouldn’t learn the craft of Texas-style barbecue until over a decade after he and his family moved to the U.S. as refugees from the Khmer Rouge. He was nine when he landed in Long Beach in the early 1980s. But by then his understanding of how to cook, use basic ingredients and seasonings was well formed.

At 21, Phuong and his father moved to Hereford, Texas. He took a job an hour away at a slaughterhouse in Amarillo, where he credits his knowledge of meat cuts and preparation.

He quickly discovered Texans’ infatuation for barbecue and meat smoking. On dinner invitations from work friends, Phuong saw that slow-cooked brisket, tri-tip and ribs were almost always on the table and he marveled at the dedication required to produce the tender meat—the early morning hours, the delicate preparation, the constant temperature monitoring.

During evening hangouts in nearby cornfields, Phuong and his friends would sip beer while they talked smoking, each person claiming they knew how to do it best.

“I found out that most people out there used a lot of dry rubs, they weren’t into sauces, stuff that I was accustomed to growing up here in Southern California and being Cambodian,” Phuong said. “So I learned the different dry rubs they had and the different types of wood they use.”

Texans prefer oak. Phuong does, too. Hickory and mesquite? Too strong, they overpower the meat. But oak, Phuong said, is subtle and enhances the black pepper and sea salt rub.

“Oak gives you that nice red color on your brisket,” he said. He’s referring to the much-admired smoke ring, a reddish band that appears just below the surface of the meat.

Phuong’s own entry into smoking started by helping his ex-girlfriend’s grandfather. He mostly watched, helped with prepping ingredients, and asked a lot of questions. Eventually, he was allowed to try on his own and found he was good at it.

Back in Long Beach five years later, Phuong said he didn’t have much time for smoking. He was helping with his family business, a textile shop that produced women’s clothing for big-name clothing companies like JC Penney.

“In Long Beach, Cambodian refugees, they have either a sweatshop, doughnut shop or a liquor store,” Phuong said.

In time, Phuong moved out of his family home and started a career in the medical industry, as a surgical tech. In his free time he would cook—a lot. He eventually got into catering, everything from Cambodian and Vietnamese to Italian and American cuisine. He also started his own Cambodian and Cajun sauce and seasonings company that he named Cambodian Cuisine.

But in March 2020, the pandemic cost Phuong his job as a surgical tech. After dedicating nearly 20 years of his life to that work, it was a serious blow. But Phuong saw an opportunity to dive back into his Texas years—full force.

He remembered that his friend was sitting on a six-by-four-foot metal smoker and he offered to buy it off him.

“It’s a tank,” Phuong said. “So I bought the smoker but I didn’t really do anything. I had to clean it up, get everything working, do a lot of test runs inviting friends and family because I wasn’t used to [using] a big old smoker.”

Watching Phuong work today it seems like he’s done it for decades, deftly multitasking between stoking the fire, cutting slabs of tender meat, and preparing each entrée—from meat plates to sliders to nachos—with sauces and sides.

The Battambong nachos are a best-seller at the North Long Beach pop-up, November 6, 2021. T.Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Always eager to play and experiment, Phuong has also started hosting themed barbecues at his pop-up. On Nov. 13 his menu featured lemongrass, panko-fried frog legs, grilled squid, shrimp and meatballs with smoked Tvako (Cambodian sausage) and P’ong T’ear G’oon, or Balut, which is fertilized duck egg.

Phuong said his sights are set on Vietnamese street food next.

“I get to be creative,” Phuong said of his love for cooking. “Different proteins, different vegetables, different arrangements that I can put on a cutting table and then plate…..it’s like art to me….I’m one with what I’m doing.”

Battambong BBQ can be found in the parking lot at Kim Sun Kitchen at 5449 Cherry Ave every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to when he sells out. Follow Puong and his pop-up on Instagram to keep up with the latest for the pitmaster.