Grilled »

Burger-centric interviews with chefs, writers, and other food lovers.

Grilled: Mike Im of Mike's Burger House in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

[Photographs: Jennifer Kikoler]

Mike Im is the burger mayor of Phnom Penh. He greets guests by name, welcomes the friends they've brought from near and far to sample burgers, takes pictures to print on business cards, and checks on tables to see how everything tastes.

But he's doing more than just serving up burgers and fries. Mike is also educating the community about health and food safety: he's the guy teaching his staff about American practices for maintaining a clean kitchen and restaurant, from storing meat at the right temperature to washing vegetables to carrying food orders high above the shoulder so they're away from the server's nose and mouth. He trains workers to wash their hands with soap each time they walk into the kitchen, and to sanitize the restaurant from top to bottom every night before closing. In a country without restaurant safety codes, and a widespread lack of health education, he's filling a critical need.

Opened in 2009, Mike's Burger House (AHT review) brings together Mike's Cambodian life and his American life. A native of Battambang, he survived the Khmer Rouge's regime, which killed 1.7 million people, including Mike's sister and two brothers. After the Khmer Rouge fell, 19-year-old Mike and his family made their way toward Thailand. When they thought they'd reached safety at the border, the Thai army rounded up the refugees and returned them to the northern Cambodia jungle in an area littered with land mines. They walked single file to avoid stepping in the wrong spot, passing bodies of people killed by the mines, women giving birth, and elderly people too tired to walk on. They ate what they could find, or what they could purchase by trading items they were carrying or wearing, including hair clips and gold. After several months, they made it to the UN refugee camp, and with the sponsorship of family in Long Beach, California, immigrated to the US.

With that came enough food to eat, and a comfortable place to live. Mike enrolled at Long Beach City College, studied English, and started working for the US Postal Service as a mail carrier. He married, had children, divorced. After 22 years with USPS, he took early retirement, tired of the early morning hours and physical strain. It was then, while on a phone call with an old friend in Cambodia, that Mike was connected with the woman who ultimately brought him back to his home country—and when he arrived, he brought American burgers with him.

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Name: Mike Im
Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Occupation: Owner, Chef, Creator, Mike's Burger House

What makes Mike's Burger House a new kind of burger restaurant? 

I concentrate on the products that I make. I make sure it's clean and fresh. The taste is the taste I had for 30 years in America. Good, clean, and taste—those are the three things that are part of the restaurant.

How did you first come up with the idea for a restaurant like this?
In 2007, I decided to come and live in Cambodia. [Mike had met and was planning to marry Borey, who already lived there.] We traveled around the country, had experience with lots of food, lots of burgers, lots of things. In 2009 I took my wife to California. We went to a lot of restaurants and a lot of burger chains: Carl's Jr, Arby's, and she loved In-N-Out Burger! We ate there almost every day. When we came back to Cambodia, my wife was craving a burger, and she wanted In-N-Out; she missed it. We went around to local burger places, and none were very good. You know what, one burger, I'll make one and see how she likes it. First bite she said, "Oh my god! This is it!" She's happy, I'm happy, because nothing else makes a man happy than something that pleases your wife.

Do you see your restaurant expanding? New locations?
I'm planning to expand slowly. I'm not in a hurry. I want to expand within Phnom Penh, where I can be part of daily business.

All right, let's talk burgers:

How often do you eat one?
Twice a week, I have to check up what I'm making! It looks good, but I still have to check it up.

Cheese: American, cheddar, other? Cheddar
Ketchup or mustard? The secret sauce! And then ketchup, and banana pepper.
Preferred bun: Regular, buttered bun—soft. Sesame seeds or no sesame seeds, both are ok. Sesame just looks good. It's got be the meat and the sauce that hits you the most. And the cheese! The first couple bites—they will remember for the next two days.
Grilled, griddled, or broiled? Grilled
And how would you like that done, sir? Medium

Would you do us the favor of describing your perfect burger:
When you open your mouth, you have to sink your teeth inside a soft warm bun, then hit the crunch of the iceberg lettuce. Then the meat, then all the way through. Sink, sink, sink, sink all the way down. Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch all the way down. But first the soft bun! Then you've got the taste.

The hamburger is a food item with which most Americans have strong childhood associations. Do you remember your earliest encounter with this delicious dish? 

I had my first bacon cheeseburger, a classic American burger, in California. It was from Carl's Jr.

What's your favorite fast-food burger?
In-N-Out Burger for taste, Carl's Jr. Six Dollar Burger burger for size.

What topping or condiment, in your opinion, should never grace a burger?
I don't like pickles—I don't think they should be on the burgers.

What are some cooking tips you can offer when preparing a burger? 

You have to know to keep everything fresh, from the bun to the sauce to the vegetables.

About the author: Jennifer Kikoler is a writer and editor who spent fall 2012 volunteering at a youth outreach NGO in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She blogs at jenniferkikoler.wordpress.com.

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