#43 Cambodia: meet Jerry Ley, restaurant survivor

The food business is notoriously brutal, but Cambodian refugee Jerry Ley has been through a special brand of restaurant hell. After surviving the Khmer Rouge regime, Jerry came to the United States in 1979, and eventually opened a tiny, beloved restaurant called Cambodian Cuisine in Fort Greene in the early 1990s—long before Fort Greene grew into its current state of yuppieness. When real estate prices skyrocketed in Fort Greene in the early 2000s, the landlord squeezed Jerry out of his space. Undeterred, Jerry decided to move his restaurant into a larger location at 93rd and 3rd in Manhattan.

note the painfully appropriate slogan in the upper-right corner

And here’s where the story becomes downright heartbreaking: Jerry had a series of nightmarish experiences with dishonest and/or incompetent contractors, and it took more than three years for the restaurant to finally open, as detailed in this 2007 New York Times article. After burning through a massive bank loan, Jerry borrowed several hundred thousand dollars from family and friends to cover the cost overruns. Jerry spent more than $1 million during the building process, but he never missed a rent payment, and finally opened his new restaurant in 2008. A few months after the renovation was complete, the landlord—a Harvard-educated lawyer who had previously been convicted of laundering drug money—evicted him, citing a minor clause in Jerry’s lease that required him to open the restaurant within 18 months of the lease start date.

Cambodian spring roll... accompanied by greasy happy fingers

So after all of his hard work, Jerry was more than $1 million in debt—and had nothing to show for it. Worse, he owed much of the money to family and friends. Read Jerry’s website carefully, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of how miserable he feels about the whole ordeal.

I’ve had an eye on Jerry’s website for a couple of years now, and was thrilled to find out that he’s back in business—but this time, Jerry has avoided landlords entirely. Jerry’s yellow food truck, called Cambodian Cuisine Torsu, has the words “on the street looking to survive” written on all sides of it, without a trace of irony.

As you might expect from a survivor like Jerry, the space limitations of a food truck haven’t harmed his food at all. His menu is smaller than in his previous ventures, but he still manages to pump out an impressive array of 17 dishes—not bad at all by NYC food truck standards. More importantly, the food itself is still inspired; the financial and legal struggles haven’t beaten the soul out of Jerry’s cooking.

Cambodian spring rolls, without greasy fingers

As an appetizer, I ordered a plate of fried Cambodian spring rolls (naem tchien, $5.95), which were deliciously intense little bundles of spiced pork, bean threads, chicken, and carrots, served with a gentle peanut sauce. For our entrees, I decided to order the two dishes that contained galangal (a lovable ginger relative, often used in Southeast Asian cooking), beginning with kroerung tofu ($5.95), a giant mound of tofu and broccoli sautéed in a non-dairy “creamy hot spicy galangal lemon grass sauce”—which was at least as delicious as it sounds.

Our second entrée, karry tuek ($5.95) was probably the highlight of my entire week: spicy Cambodian curry with chicken, lemongrass, galangal, coconut milk, onions, bamboo shoots,

tofu in "creamy hot spicy galangal lemon grass sauce"

water chestnuts, and stir-fried potatoes, served on a curry-soaked bed of vermicelli. The curry was lick-the-container good, and I jammed the empty bowl with some random non-Cambodian leftovers (boiled chicken, rice, a few raw vegetables), goofily hoping that some of the magic of the Cambodian curry would rub off the contents in time for breakfast the next day.

As thrilled as I was with our food, I was equally happy to see that the six-week-old Cambodian Cuisine truck was already attracting a decent crowd—especially by the standards of a chilly, crappy, NYC weeknight. As the son of a failed restaurant owner (and grandson of a Greek diner owner), I have a huge soft spot for guys like Jerry. Maybe I’m unreasonably biased, but I can’t help but root for a guy who survives the Khmer Rouge, two greedy landlords, and financial ruin –and still has a smile on his face while making a damned good Cambodian curry. I’d love to see the Cambodian Cuisine food truck succeed beyond Jerry’s wildest dreams; I’ll smile when I see higher price and a line winding around the block. I’ll smile even more when Jerry manages to open another restaurant someday—but hopefully without the landlord troubles next time.

Keep fighting, Jerry.

one of the best curries I've ever eaten... bring on the crowds, please

Cambodian Cuisine Torsu (food truck)
usually near LaGuardia and West 4th St. (Washington Square Park), Manhattan
subway: 8th St. (N, R trains) or West 4th St. (A, B, C, D, E, F, M) or Astor Place (6)
follow Jerry Ley on twitter
follow United Nations of Food on twitter

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