Travel tastes good.
Today, I can’t quite afford to try out the steak-strip tacos in Polebridge, Montana or grilled octopus on the Greek island of Sifnos. But travel’s a state of mind, a willingness to appreciate, which spices the shortest of trips.
Today, I’ve ridden an Italian motorcycle down from the foothills of North America’s oldest mountains, across the fabled river the Mohegans called quinetucket, through a City of Fountains named after the heartland of ancient Phoenicia. In this handsome park surrounded by historic New England architecture, I’m seated at an outdoor table dedicated to that 17th-century French fad, the pique-nique.
Passersby might confuse the sandwich in my hands with a Vietnamese-style banh mi. Its baguette reflects France’s 67-year empire in “Indochina,” but the sandwich I’m about to bite into is filled with beef marinated in lemongrass, chili and ground peanuts.
This is Cambodian cuisine.
If I hadn’t chosen the beef, I might have filled my sandwich with coconut jumbo shrimp, ginger garlic pork, curry or teriyaki chicken or grilled tofu with a spicy soy sesame sauce. Or I could have eschewed the sandwich and enjoyed any of those flavors over jasmine rice, pad thai or a salad tossed with pumpkinseed dressing. I might have composed a meal of crab soup and a selection of appetizers — maybe the fried dumpling, or the chicken satay.
And I’m still debating a dessert of Khmer crispy coconut cookies.
It’s all made fresh in the truck parked just beyond Colburn Park’s wrought-iron fence.
The Phnom Penh Sandwich Station is here in Lebanon Mondays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., when it rolls up to Hanover and finds a 4-to-9-p.m. place at one end or the other of Dartmouth’s Green.
Phnom Penh Sandwich Station is a family business, run by the wife-and-husband team of Lay Yi and Sarin Tin with Sarin’s father, Sreang Tin, at the grill. They’re all Cambodian-born. Sreang has been working in Stateside restaurants for decades, and Sarin has been a machinist at Hypertherm for eight years.
Lay Yi joined her husband in Lebanon only three years ago. At first, she worked as a cashier at a Hanover gas station, but now her engaging smile sets the food truck’s ambience. Spelling one another at the Sandwich Station’s busy window, she and Sarin told me that their business started just last year.
“We see a lot of Chinese restaurants and sometimes Korean restaurants, and then we see Thai restaurants,” Lay Yi explained. “And then we’re thinking, we can sew up any Cambodian food.”
The entire family supported their idea. They had Sreang Tin’s talent and experience, and everyone else — including Sarin Tin’s mother, sister and brother-in-law — is also interested in good food. They started with a summer stand at the Hanover farmer’s market. “And then a lot of people like our food,” Lay Yi said, “and that's why we think about the food truck in the same year.”
There are no food trucks in the streets of Phnom Penh, Sarin said, but people eat sandwiches from “carts, kinda like hot dog carts, all around the city.” The vehicle might differ, but the truck would serve food in the great tradition of Cambodian sidewalk fare.
Through that portal of wonders known as craigslist, they found the truck in exotic New Jersey. It needed work, but they had it cooking by fall. Business was so strong that they stayed out until the end of November, despite the cold.
“We started early this year, end of April,” he said, “and it seems like old customers all coming back. And then we get a lot of new customers, too!”
Why? Well, there’s the chance to travel around the world from a seat at picnic table.
“We make crispy coconut cookies” to order on a waffle iron, Sarin said, “a real Cambodian dessert you can't find anywhere around here. I don’t think anywhere around here has this kind of sandwich. And the salad dressing, the pumpkinseed dressing, you cannot find almost anywhere in the States, either.”
Then there’s the fact that the family makes almost everything on the menu, from the Khmer cookies to the lemongrass marinade.
“Quality is our priority,” Sarin said. “We don’t do the leftover food and stuff. Our mission is good food, so people don’t mind if they wait a little bit while it’s made.”
But the best answer for the truck’s success may be Sarin’s citation of his favorite menu item. “It has to be the sandwich. I like the spicy ginger garlic pork. It has all different flavor and texture and taste, like crispy from the bread and the crunchy from the pickled carrot, then spiciness from the chili mayonnaise.”
Which brings me back to the pique-nique table in the far-flung City of Fountains, to the lemongrass beef sandwich and my first bite.
Aromatic bread, crisp veggies, piquant sauce, beef steeped in tastes sharp and light and high.
Phnom Penh Sandwich Station menu and location updates can be found on Facebook.
William Craig is a writer and professor living in Thetford Center.