By ZACHARY KUSSIN, CUNY J-School
March 21, 2011
Locals who recall the iconic Cambodian Cuisine sign in Fort Greene will be happy to find those words prominently written in green paint on the side of a new West Village food truck.
But around the exterior of the Cambodian Cuisine Torsu truck, the signs are less upbeat: “On the street looking to survive” is painted in red, and the mounted poster board explains why this is the case.
It all began in 2005, when a rent increase displaced Cambodian Cuisine’s owner, Jerry Ley, 56, from his much-beloved restaurant on South Elliot Place (in the space now occupied by the Smoke Joint) after 13 years of business, much to the distress of the restaurant’s devoted customers. That year, Mr. Ley relocated to a building on East 93rd Street in Manhattan.
But more problems accompanied him. A complicated three-year legal dispute between Mr. Ley, his contractors, and the new building’s landlord delayed the opening of his new restaurant until June 2008, and led to its premature closing that December.
“I worked so hard,” said Mr. Ley. “I don’t know what I did wrong, I don’t know what crime I committed.”
Mr. Ley came to America from Cambodia in July 1979 to escape the Khmer Rouge, he said. After three decades of working to create a better life for himself and for his family, Mr. Ley said, he is now struggling to get by. When he explained why, he began to cry.
“It’s too much to bear,” he said. “I cannot stand still — I need to feed my family.”
From Bridge and Tunnel Club
The big green Cambodian Cuisine sign was a fixture in Fort Greene for 13 years.
Mr. Ley said he recently suffered yet another financial setback. His wife has been in and out of the hospital recently, and the bills have piled up. Mr. Ley said he had no other choice but to open his food truck last month. He enlisted the help of his son, Banney, 18, who helps take orders and package meals. Mr. Ley said he feels guilty that the truck takes his son away from his schoolwork. But Banney said he likes helping out.
Still, Mr. Ley has a following of loyal customers. Ian Head, a 10-year Fort Greene resident who ordered dinner from the truck on Tuesday, said he was delighted to hear of Mr. Ley’s mobile operation. He has missed stopping by Mr. Ley’s Fort Greene restaurant to pick up his favorite tofu and vegetable dishes.
“I was bummed…because I have my places I go to eat, and that was one of my places,” he said. “As soon as I heard about this, I was, like, ‘yes.’”
Mr. Ley’s Twitter feed makes it easy for Cambodian food lovers to track his location. But generally, Mr. Ley said, he tends to stay on the corner of West 4th Street and Laguardia Place.
Mr. Ley’s new menu is reduced from the one in his restaurant — there are only so many items he can make in his truck. But it still includes an impressive spread of 17 noodle, fish, chicken, and tofu platters. Appetizers cost $3.95 and main courses are $5.95. Standouts include his Num Pain Saach — a spicy hero sandwich dressed with lettuce, ham, pork, turkey, carrots and cucumber — and Chhar Kuey Teo Koke — a hearty noodle dish made with egg, chicken and vegetables, topped with garlic.
Mary Kidd, a five-year resident of Clinton Hill who had not heard of Cambodian Cuisine in Fort Greene, said she was happy to discover Mr. Ley’s truck after walking out of NYU’s library recently.
“Who doesn’t like a good food truck?” she said.
Financial struggles aside, Mr. Ley, said he opened up again for another reason — to reconnect with his customers.
“The public likes my performance,” he said. “This helps keep me going.”
For now, Mr. Ley has no plans to bring his truck to Fort Greene. It’s too soon, he said, to go back.