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Sy Bunsong, co-owner, with Lussy the husky and other dogs in ‘TJ’s House’. Hong Menea

At TJ Café, a puppy playground bred from tragedy

Despite the cheery concept of Le TJ Café – the first restaurant in the capital where you can also play with a roomful of pets – the project arose from heartbreak. Opened last year, the small café near Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum offers casual BBQ dishes and a miniature zoo where customers can snuggle up with a surprisingly diverse array of animals.

According to the owners, a group of four International Relations students from the Paññasastra University of Cambodia in their early 20s, a sad story is behind the business.

“TJ stands for ‘Tasty and Joyful’, but it was also the name of a dog that we raised together,” said Sy Bunsong, 22.

“It may sound a little bit strange but TJ was the force behind our close friendship and the opening of the restaurant.”

About two years ago, Bunsong, Sarat Thaymay and Mo Leakena bought the Pomeranian puppy for Nary Noraboth, an animal lover. However, since their friend Noraboth was busy studying and working a part-time job, the responsibility for the dog ended up falling on the four classmates. As often happens, one dog led to another, and TJ’s pack grew.

“Even Thaymay, who used to be afraid of all breeds of dog, was completely changed,” Bunsong said.

“When we had a lot of dogs, we wanted a permanent place for them to stay, so the idea of creating a restaurant with a place in which people can play with them came to our mind.”

The foursome had one problem, though: their dogs fell sick and, one by one, passed away. Even TJ eventually fell ill.

Two months after TJ’s death, and after working to save up, they opened the café in a two-storey rental house.

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Mixed Fun ($10), Le TJ Café’s popular BBQ set. Hong Menea

Since then, Le TJ Café has become a popular hangout for locals to eat BBQ. The specialty of the restaurant is the Mixed Fun ($10), which consists of a set of raw beef, pork and chicken, which is enough for three or four people. The right way to handle it is to grill the meat on an eight-pocket pan with cheese and quail eggs, as well as raw spinach, carrots and cucumbers.

The other popular dishes include the Pin Neh Eggs ($2.5), comprising fried quail eggs covered with juicy sauce made from ripe tamarinds and sesame seed, and Healthy Avo Spring Rolls ($3), the rolled appetisers filled with chunks of avocado, ripe mango, carrots and spinach, and dipped into ketchup and mayonnaise.

A few months ago, the owners fulfilled their dream by creating “TJ’s House” – a miniature zoo on the second floor. There, customers can play and take photos with more than 20 dogs, including a Siberian Husky, Pug, Maltese, Chihuahua and other breeds. The dogs are carefully looked after by three caretakers, and regularly visited by veterinarians every month, the owners say.

There are also cats, hedgehogs, hamsters, and a sugar glider, which is a flying possum that they keep separate from the other animals. For $3, customers can play with the animals for as long as they wish.

“The restaurant is dedicated to our friendship, TJ and other dogs who died,” Bunsong says. “A restaurant which is a home to dogs is so much better than a restaurant that is selling dogs’ meat.”

Le TJ Café is located on Street 113, near Toul Sleng Genocide Museum. It is open every day from 9am to 9pm while TJ’s House is opening from 10am to 7pm.

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