Update (1/8/13): Check out my Grilled interview for more about Mike's Burger House founder Mike Im and his burger preferences.
Mike's Burger House
315 Russian Boulevard (near Street 289) in the Sokimex station, Phnom Penh, Cambodia; 012-633-971 / 015-714-771; Facebook page
Cooking method: Grilled
Short Order: Great American-style fast food burgers transplanted to Cambodia
Want Fries With That? Thin cut fries are crisp and tasty, but the chili cheese fries are a standout.
Prices: House Special Cheeseburger, $2.99; Classic American Bacon Cheeseburger, $3.50; LD Crazy Burger, $10.99; plain fries S/M/L, $1/$2/$4; medium Chili Cheese Fries, $4.99; chocolate shake, $3.99
Same same, but different. This Southeast Asian catchphrase makes something seem familiar, but also highlights the new. Mike's Burger House, tucked into a Sokimex gas station on Russian Boulevard in Phnom Penh, features these classic American burger joint elements: cheeseburgers, fries and milkshakes. Vintage red diner booths. A packed parking lot. But motorbikes whizzing past the front windows like speedy schools of fish carry everything from enormous bags of mangoes to a family of four, all balanced on one seat. Same same, but different.
The man behind the burger is Mike, or Chenda by his Cambodian name. He left Cambodia with his family as a 19-year-old in 1979, just after the Khmer Rouge fell, and after a harrowing time in refugee camps, resettled in southern California, where they built new lives as Americans. Mike returned to his home country in 2007 after he fell in long-distance love, and he and his new wife, Borey, celebrated their marriage with travels through the US and Cambodia. Mike began cooking burgers at home when Borey said she missed her favorite treat from the US—In-N-Out Burger. He set out to recreate the food for his wife. "The best thing you can do is make your wife happy," he said.
After that first homemade burger, Mike launched a small outpost near the airport, and, as business grew, moved to its current Russian Boulevard home last year. The gas station location makes it feel all the more like an American roadside joint.
So, is the burger as good as the story? Yes. (Read more of his story in this New York Times article.) Mike's house special cheeseburger, with or without bacon, holds its own in the album of great fast food burgers.
The bacon cheeseburger ($3.50) looks dwarfed by its bun and condiments, especially the lettuce, which appears as wings about to send the whole thing aloft. It's an optical illusion—the patty is larger than it looks at about 130 grams (4.5 ounces) and stands up to the rest of the burger. All of the elements work together to make a very tasty burger. I heard happy eater sounds coming from everywhere in the restaurant.
As a developing country, Cambodia lacks infrastructure for mass-production facilities or central commissaries, which means everything is hyper fresh and local. The beef is from a nearby farm and ground in the restaurant; it's grilled to fully-cooked doneness. Using Mike's recipe, sesame seed buns are made at a local bakery and delivered on a motorbike a couple of times each day. Ripe, red tomatoes taste like August's finest, iceberg lettuce is crunchy and cool, and white onion slices are grilled. American-style cheese is just the right kind of melty (Mike gets it from Holland). Nearly every burger features secret sauce, a mayonnaise, relish, and ketchup concoction. Mike also makes sure two other things are done right: toasting the bun and cooking the bacon to shattering crispness.
The LD Crazy Burger ($10.99), at least a foot high, threatened to nosedive to the floor, but two long skewers held everything together. Stacked are burger patties, a grilled chicken breast, a fried fish fillet (made in-house with Mekong river fish), eggs, grilled peppers, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and secret sauce. We cut into it with a knife, fork, and military precision. Five of us ate on it; nobody finished it. Deconstructed, we had the opportunity to try each element on its own, and they all shined, especially the juicy, charred chicken.
Fries ($1-$4), McDonald's-style thin, salty and crispy, taste like late nights at college-town diners. Even better are the chili cheese fries ($4.99). Beefy chili, speckled with kidney beans, blankets the fries and shredded cheddar is beneath. A riot of tomatoes, onions, pickles and grilled Anaheim peppers (which, despite the California name, are a local variety) round out these eat-with-a-fork fries.
Cambodia's got its blended-drink skills down: fruit smoothies and shakes are available everywhere, so it was no wonder that Mike's rocked a classic chocolate shake ($3.99). The surprise ingredient: a hit of peanut butter. I liked candy bar effect, but it needs to be marked as such for people who don't want peanut butter in their chocolate or, worse, are allergic to it.
Among our group of eaters were three Americans, a German, and a Cambodian—it was the United Nations of burger eating, and we had no problem achieving a consensus of delicious. Did we love the burgers because they were a happy little piece of home in a country filled with meals of fish and rice? Oh yeah. Would we be regulars at Mike's if it was down the street from any of our non-expat lives? Absolutely.
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.