- Riley Bratzler
- Cilantro-topped tilapia to go, topped with sweet chili.
The French colonized Cambodia from the mid-1860s through early 1950s, as always leaving behind culinary influences that still reverberate long after independence. The most familiar example: baguette sandwiches. In Vietnam they're called bánh mì, most authentically represented in the Springs at Banh Mi Viet, though they're increasingly seen across bistro menus. In Cambodia, they're known as num pang, which differ not just in the moniker, but also the fillings. Here, you'll only find them at the newly opened Awaken Food Truck, our town's first Cambodian culinary venture.
Owner Chhaya Phat, 35, recently left his post as a cook in the Army to launch the mobile business, which now parks outside several breweries and at Pikes Peak Community College, as part of its new food service program.
Having been in the U.S. more than a decade now, Phat borrows from modern American as much as traditional Southeast Asian cuisine. Namely by offering vegetarian/vegan alternatives, thanks in part to his wife's home cooking habits, which lend him a sensitivity toward alternatives in the marketplace.
That said, Phat certainly hasn't diluted Awaken culturally, wrapping his bright yellow truck with a beautiful banner paying homage to Buddhism and the Angkor Wat temples specifically. He holds fine aesthetic tastes, from a neat chalkboard menu with magazine-worthy photos of each dish clipped alongside plate descriptions, to colorful cans of coconut milk and lychees turned into cutlery- and napkin-holders on a shelf at his service window. Even the utensils are made out of sustainably harvested, compostable wood, granting a woodsy tropical vibe. Phat says he's chosen to absorb the extra expense for them, and other recyclables that replace cheap foam ware, to be greener, pointing to Cambodia's struggle with illegal logging and deforestation as inspiration.
On the current short menu of four items plus a few drinks, lightness leads, with simple fresh flavors. Crispy grilled tilapia ($9; all other plate options $8) with jasmine rice gets a Mae Ploy sauce that Phat cuts with fish sauce, lemon juice and minced garlic. Side cucumber slices and shredded, pickled papaya (like that found in Thai som tum salad) plus carrot add crunch. A kaffir lime leaf coconut curry exudes that herbal note with other house-ground spices, wrapped around onions, red bells and either chicken or tofu, with a ginger-basil finish and distinct Thai style.
Phat says overlap between the neighboring countries is common, hence his offering of Thai iced tea alongside Cambodian iced coffee — both expectedly sweet. Those creamier drinks work well with the hot plates, but a hand-squeezed mint lemonade pairs better with the two num pang.
In those, either the real chicken or texturally accurate Gardein-brand fake chicken plays the protein part on a vegan baguette (as some bread recipes do call for honey or egg), which Phat buys. And he smears vegan mayo on both and garnishes both with ample cilantro. The Phnom Penh Curry Sub then adds a tangle of purple cabbage (it could benefit from a further tangy element), whereas the Cambodian Sub goes for cucumber and, in place of the bánh mì's typical daikon, the pickled papaya-carrot relish.
Nothing overly complicated here, obviously, but the path to Awaken in Buddhism does stem from de-cluttering the mind; nothing wrong with doing so on the plate too.