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Mike's Burger House: Phnom Penh's In-N-Out-inspired fast food joint
From Khmer Rouge misery to Los Angeles and back, a Cambodian man is finding salvation in big, juicy burgers
After one too many helpings of the local street food, even the most seasoned traveler sometimes craves a taste of something familiar.
For Westerners, when that moment strikes in Phnom Penh, Mike’s Burger House is the joint to hit.
It’s a modest establishment, attached to a gas station -- a prime location to lure the motorbike-riding lunch crowd.
Products from the United States line the walls: Vanilla Coke, Cheerios, even Pepto-Bismol.
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Finding a bottle of Hidden Valley ranch dressing for sale in the middle of Cambodia is nothing short of random, but for owner Mike Chenda Im, it all reminds him of the country where he embarked on his second life.
A year after the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that killed an estimated two million people during its reign in Cambodia, Chenda Im decided to leave.
“The country has nothing left,” he told himself.
On September 4, 1980, he touched down at Los Angeles International Airport with several family members.
“Oh my God, we’re in heaven,” he says he thought upon arriving in his new home.
For more than 20 years, Chenda Im built his version of the American dream.
He got a job at a post office, bought a house and eventually started a business.
But after a failed first marriage, he realized he was missing a piece of the puzzle to make his life whole -- a family.
More than 30 years after leaving Cambodia, Chenda Im is now back and running a restaurant, this one inspired by his new wife, Borey, who missed the taste of L.A.'s famed In-N-Out burgers.
Chenda Im decided the only way to satisfy her cravings would be to open a restaurant where she could enjoy burgers every day.
In 2009, Mike's Burger House was born.
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"We were ready to die"
Chenda Im sees food as a way to connect with people, sharing something that at one time was denied to him and his country.
The Khmer Rouge forced the people of Cambodia out of cities and into the countryside to work.
At the age of 14, Chenda Im says he worked all kinds of jobs -- building dams, harvesting rice and working construction, all in pitiful living conditions.
He slept on floors, battled severe illness and came so close to starvation that his body looked like a chair.
Chenda Im lived in this way for four years, aware that others -- including his brothers and sister -- were being taken away and killed. He lost hope that anyone would ever help his country. (See below video of Chenda.)
“We were ready to die,” he says.
Today he says he has no regrets about coming back: “The country has moved forward like everybody else.”
It’s that attitude that he says keeps everyone smiling.
“That’s a natural Cambodian. We’re born that way.”
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Mike’s Burger House, 315 Sokimex Station, Russian Blvd., Phnom Penh; +855 (0)1 263 3971