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Former Refugee Is Cambodia's New 'Burger King'

There is perhaps nothing more American than flipping burgers on the Fourth of July — even if the burgers are being flipped in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A Cambodian-American who fled the Killing Fields of his country more than 30 years ago has returned and opened his own Burger House.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It doesn't get much more American than flipping burgers on the 4th of July. And Cambodian-American Chenda Im, who prefers his nickname Mike, has been flipping his at Mike's Burger House. That's in Phnom Phen, Cambodia. Mike fled the killing fields of his country more than 30 years ago at age 19. He's one of a small number of Cambodians who've elected to return and start over again.

And as Michael Sullivan reports from Phnom Penh, his business is thriving.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello, can I help you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three Classics.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Three Classics. Six dollar, even.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Mike's Burgers are the real deal. But don't take my word for it. Just go to Trip Advisor and see the number of people there who agree. Or just listen to these satisfied lunchtime customers. Here's Cornelia Hainer(ph). She's from Switzerland.

CORNELIA HAINER: They have the best in town. But I would say the best I've ever eaten.

SULLIVAN: OK, but she is Swiss - maybe not the best judge of an American icon. But how about a Texan? Brad Aikens works with Cornelia at Sihanouk Hospital.

BRAD AIKENS: If you're looking for like sort of old-fashioned Americana, diner burgers, you can't get better than this. I mean, I've had the bacon burger, the fish burger, the burritos, the chili dogs - had most things. I can't go for the Crazy Burger, that's just too much.

SULLIVAN: A burger joint in Phnom Penh might seem an odd choice for a man who carried mail in Southern California for more than 20 years. But Mike is a contradiction, too, a colorful character who remembers the hunger of the Khmer Rouge period, as well as the taste of his first burger when he reached America in 1980. A man who puts his money where your mouth is when it comes to the burgers he serves.

MIKE CHENDA: I guarantee it. The first two bites, you don't like it, leave it. Just don't pay.

SULLIVAN: So far, he says, nobody's taken him up on his offer. What makes his burgers so good, he says, is his attention to detail and American standards of hygiene. He freely admits modeling his burgers after the California-based In-N-Out chain, but says not so modestly that his are both bigger and better. And he's also kind of a burger Nazi when it comes to how people consume what he creates - don't even think about asking for a knife and fork.

CHENDA: If you want to get the best taste of the burger, you should press in the bag firm, you'll sink your teeth down the bun and then go straight down the iceberg lettuce - you'll feel its crunch and you feel the meat, you feel the sauce. You taste everything right there.

SULLIVAN: You're a bossy burger maker.

CHENDA: Well, you know, I want them to feel the taste the best.

SULLIVAN: So, how did might end up in the burger business anyway?

CHENDA: Well, the story is - it is like a love story. A love burger.

SULLIVAN: Here's the short version. Mike's marriage in the U.S. falls apart, so he decides to return to Cambodia to start a new life and coincidentally meets the granddaughter of the man who rescued him from the Khmer Rouge. They talk. They date. They marry and he takes her to the U.S. for a visit. They eat burgers, lots of burgers. They come back, but the burgers in Phnom Penh are a huge disappointment to his new wife, Borey.

So, Mike decides to make one for her, painstakingly sourcing then preparing ingredients from the local markets. He cooks. She eats. She smiles, and a burger house is born.

Mike says he feels pretty much at home here now a few years in but still feels the pull of his other home. As we talk, his 21-year-old daughter, Melanie, Skypes him from Long Beach on a laptop next to the register, angling for her dad's help in buying a new car. It's clear he's going to cave. It's also clear he plans on staying here and is even opening a second burger house near the ruins of Angkor Wat in the fall.

There are rumors that Burger King may open here soon, the first American chain to do so, but Mike doesn't seem worried. For now, he's the burger king and doesn't plan on giving up his throne anytime soon.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Phnom Penh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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