There’s USDA choice beef and pork shoulder on the menu, plus slow-smoked baby-back ribs, fajitas, meatloaf and a famous chicken-fried steak—all crave-worthy, all responsible for the restaurant’s devoted following. One customer, in fact, orders the CFS for delivery every day. Want to put this spot on your list of places to try? It’s called the Lone Star Saloon. Be advised, however, that this place is not the downtown dive bar, nor is it located in Houston, Texas, or even the U.S. The popular haunt’s located smack dab in the middle of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
On a recent trip to Asia, we stopped in to see for ourselves whether the place felt like home. And it did, so much so that we immediately forgave owner Greg Hill for being a native of Dallas. Thousands of miles away from the U.S., such a distinction felt irrelevant, especially in the face of this monumental accomplishment: “To my knowledge,” Hill told us, “we brought the chicken-fried steak to Cambodia.”
After learning to cook while working on fishing boats in Alaska and traveling through Central and South America, in 2001, Hill decided to have one more adventure before settling down: a four-month trip to Southeast Asia. But as it so often does, life had other plans for the traveler. During his tour, Hill fell in love with Cambodia—and his wife—and so decided to stay.
After his go-to spot for American fare in Phnom Penh closed, Hill decided to fill the void himself, opening the Lone Star Saloon, his ode to Texas culture, in 2008. Today, Hill spends half the year in Cambodia and half in the U.S., working in oil and gas. When he’s out of the country, his wife runs the saloon. “Lone Star is my fun job,” he said, “and my passion is Cambodia.” The bar features a mounted jackalope, a neon Lone Star sign, even a Golden Tee arcade game Hill dragged over from Thailand—possibly the only one in Cambodia—all of which fit right in with the traditional Buddhist spirit altar sitting in one corner.
Most of the food is sourced from Phnom Penh markets, including ingredients to make tortillas, refried beans, salsa and barbecue sauce. The only meat that’s not local is the brisket, which Hill imports. “It really forces you to get down to the very basics of cooking,” he said. “You have to go behind the counter and show the butcher exactly what cut you want.” And while he believes his employees “can now probably cook the menu as good or better than me,” there have been some translation issues over the years, with cooks confusing cinnamon for chili powder, or accidentally adding sweetened milk to gravy.
With a majority American clientele, the saloon serves as a hub for nostalgic expats. Besides the massive July 4th barbecue Hill hosts each year in a tent on the street, he puts on an annual chili cook-off complete with a panel of local chefs as judges and a people’s choice award. Customers also descend upon the bar for live screenings of NFL games—in the mornings, Cambodia time. But the clientele’s not all American, said Hill: “I’ve got a loyal following of Japanese expats for the ribs.”
A lot has changed in the eight years since Hill opened the place. In the beginning, he served the only American Southern menu in the capital of Cambodia, but today he’s got some competition—including at least one other restaurant that also serves chicken-fried steak. Not only that, “there must be over a hundred expat bars now. The industry has gotten so competitive,” he said. “Phnom Penh has grown 20 years in the last five. It has become a pretty cosmopolitan restaurant city.” In other words, you can find a decent CFS.
Lone Star Saloon & Guest House, No. 30, Street 23, Phnom Penh, Cambodia