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A Khmerican journey to the perfect burger


Those who attended the recent Tiger Translate music festival a few weeks back may have caught a glimpse of a bustling hamburger stand and, in its midst, a jovial Cambodian fellow taking orders and smoothly switching between English and Khmer to accommodate the customer, all the while keeping a generous smile on his face.

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With a thriving business set to expand to Siem Reap, Im Chenda, the owner of Mike’s Burger House, has a lot to smile about.

In fact, the only time his broad grin disappears is when he is asked whether he finds his line of work stressful. Im Chenda, who goes by his American nickname, the eponymous “Mike”, seems genuinely taken aback that someone would even consider the prospect that he wasn’t having the time of his life.

“Over here? I enjoy every moment!” he roars.

“I enjoy seeing people, communicating with people, creating the food. Most of all, seeing the people smile when they eat a good burger!”

Given the lacklustre quality of the average hamburger on Riverside menus in the capital, Mike understands the initial scepticism of his potential customers, and guarantees anyone who orders one of his creations their money back if they don’t love it after the first two bites.

Had this Post correspondent sampled one of Mike’s burgers before the interview, there would have been no need to ask him why he felt so self-assured.

Mike was only too happy to explain: “Because I already know what’s in there from top to bottom. American-style smoked bacon, crisp iceberg lettuce, a good ripe tomato and premium fresh beef.”

Like all the best hospitality ventures, however, the secret ingredient is love, and the story of the burger house’s origins is even more sublime than the burgers themselves.

Born Im Chenda, Mike spent his childhood in Battambang Province. In the middle of the Khmer Rouge period Mike, then 17 years old, attempted to flee across the border to escape the horrors of the regime.

Driven back by Thai soldiers, it took him three months to walk back to his home village, in which time he had become so sick and undernourished that his bones poked through his flesh.

Mike credits a kind-hearted carpenter in the village the morning he arrived with saving his life.

The man gave him work on the carpentry team, which gave him access to an extra food allowance to recover from his tribulations in the jungle.

When his health returned, Mike once again fled Cambodia, and in 1980 he arrived in California to settle as a refugee in Long Beach. It was here that he learned the art of the American burger.

25 years later, Mike’s cousin returned to the country and put him back in contact with his saviour’s family.

Mike began regularly calling and emailing the carpenter’s granddaughter, Borey Mean, and on the basis of their burgeoning friendship, decided to return to visit the country himself.

“I came to Cambodia, I went to her house at night and she just recognised my voice,” says Mike, “and then it was just love at first sight.” Borey Mean, sitting next to Mike, happily murmurs her agreement.

“A year later, I decided to come back and live here, and now I enjoy every moment. It’s a very happy ending.

“During a brief trip back to Long Beach, Borey Mean was introduced to Hamburg’s greatest culinary export by Mike.

“One day she told me she wanted a burger like we had in America. We tried one place by Riverside and she says ‘no, it’s not the same’. I said, ‘you know what, since I love to cook, since my passion is to make good food, let me make something for you and see.’”

Mike had another restaurant further west on Russian Boulevard and, emboldened by Borey Mean’s love of his American cooking, began offering his burgers to the expats who swung by his establishment on the way to and from the airport.

The response was so enthusiastic that he decided to reinvent his business as an all-American diner, with Borey Mean usually playing the role of the affable hostess.

Along with his runaway following among homesick expats, Mike has also kept busy courting locals, who currently account for about 30 percent of his takings. Mike’s Burger was a hit at the Tiger Translate festival, with local youth and expats alike enthusiastically lining up for his offerings.

The business has become so successful that he is now gearing up for a second franchise in Siem Reap, which he expects to have up and running in time for the midyear tourist season.

“A lot of people say, there are two things you gotta see in Cambodia,” Mike laughs.

“One’s Angkor Wat, Two is Mike’s Burger. Well, now you can do both at once!”

Mike’s Burger House is located at the Sokimex petrol station at the corner of Russian and Mao Tse Toung Boulevards. Mike’s Siem Reap store is expected to open in the first week of June.

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