Written by FRANK SHYONG
Phnom Penh Noodle Shack, one of the better-known restaurants in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town, opened in 1985 in a tiny dining room with four tables.
Tan’s aunts and uncles worked in sandals, with no air conditioning, on a floor slippery with grease. The menu was simple: some noodle dishes from a village outside Siem Reap and a few side items.
Cambodians came from all over, squeezing shoulder to shoulder at laminate tables to slurp bowls of noodles and pork soup that cost just a few dollars.
“People would come here and forget all about their grief, and just relax and remember the things that made them happy. It was a place for healing,” said Tan, whose father worked as a waiter.
His older relatives — refugees from the “killing fields,” the five-year campaign of terror and genocide in the 1970s that left nearly 2 million Cambodians dead — thought in terms of survival. And so for two decades, despite its popularity with locals, the restaurant never changed or expanded.
Five years ago, Tan and his brothers bought the restaurant.
They doubled the size of the dining room and installed non-slip floors and air conditioning. Tan kept the recipes but courted the attention of food critics and framed their reviews on the restaurant’s walls. He launched Facebook and Instagram accounts and partnered with an investor to serve their food at a second restaurant in San Jose.
Tan and his brothers dream of a kind of success that their parents never imagined: franchising, becoming CEOs and making millions of dollars.
“Sometimes it’s like the sky was too high for them,” Tan said. “But we are still trying to get to the top.”