As Cantina restaurant closes its iconic riverside location after more than 10 years, owner Hurley Scroggins looks back on the highs and the lows – and ahead to another round. Writing by Joanna Mayhew; photography by Anna Spelman.
Asked how he feels about his beloved restaurant shutting its doors, owner Hurley Scroggins has a simple response: “Heartbroken.”
The country’s longest-running Mexican restaurant has closed after losing its rented space, marking the end of an era for the many Cambodians and expats who over the years, and amidst an ever-changing city, have frequented the eatery for its trusty tacos, quesadillas and margaritas.
Originally rented for $450 per month, the building was intended to provide Scroggins a place to live and store his belongings. Gradually, he began selling beers, simply calling it the bar, or “cantina”, and in 2004 decided to serve food.
“When I opened, people thought it was crazy – because Mexican is too specific,” he says. “But I stuck to my guns.” At the time, the small restaurant scene included one other Mexican place, but the two owners found a way to coexist. “I would open at night and serve lots of liquor; he opened during the day and served the Christians.”
Today, a plethora of Mexican options exist in the city. “I guess I was doing something right,” says the 53-year-old, sporting a breezy pineapple-themed shirt. Though raised in California, Scroggins spent time living Mexico. The place had far-reaching impact on him, and the first dish he ever learned to make was a quesadilla.
A hallmark of Catina’s Cal-Mex offerings has been homemade staples, like tortillas fashioned from Maseca-brand masa harina. Scroggins imports a container stacked with dried chili peppers, jalapenos, spices and other ingredients twice yearly from California. And many of the fresh ingredients used are synonymous with local flavours, incorporating mango, lime and pepper. “I think Cambodia is the Mexico of Southeast Asia,” Scroggins says. “I get a similar feeling.”
The open, light-walled space, with a scattering of dark tables, a bar and a neon “tacos” sign, has remained relatively unchanged over time, with the exception of a growing number of Scroggins’ framed collectibles crowding the walls in neat rows: 1970s Cambodia photographs by Al Rockoff and Tim Page, movie stills by Roland Neveu, and Mexican cowboy film posters.
A journalist by trade, Scroggins first arrived in Cambodia in 1993 on a Thai magazine assignment. After having his passport stolen, he was stuck awaiting a new one for six weeks, and was simultaneously fired from his job and hired for another.
He went on to work as a UN peacekeeper on the Thai border, before writing for the Phnom Penh Post and other publications, as well as working on commercials, documentaries and feature films in the country.
As a result, the journalist crowd has been a mainstay at Cantina. “This became our little clubhouse,” says Scroggins, sitting at one of the outdoor tables as motorbikes stream along the riverfront. But as the journalism scene changed, so did its micro-scene within the eatery, with numbers decreasing or fragmenting to varied locations.
“It’s not like it used to be,” he says, adding that when he first arrived contacts for stories were gained over beers with the veterans, before Internet was an option. “That’s why I drank so much,” he jokes. “It was a total career move.”
He speaks fondly of the early days, spent travelling to northwest Cambodia, where he worried about malaria and mines and got stoned with soldiers. “Originally, journalists were really like heroes – or at least we thought we were,” he says. “Now there’s not as much to cover.”
The restaurant has also been frequented by a string of celebrities, including the photographers that grace the walls as well as Matt Dillon, Anthony Bourdain and George Hamilton. But the biggest boost for Scroggins has been Mexican visitors who have given their seal of approval. “It’s not like mom makes, but it’s not bad for a gringo,” he says.
Surrounding the steady harbour of Cantina, the city’s restaurant scene has changed rapidly in the last decade. Food safety has improved, says Scroggins, who chuckles when confessing he had diarrhoea for 10 years after arriving.
Prices have risen dramatically for ingredients and rent – with Cantina’s raised to $1,700 – and the dining options have ballooned, though many turn over quickly, he adds.
Cantina’s neighbourhood has also changed significantly. “It’s turned to shit,” says Scroggins, sweeping his hand towards a scattering of teenagers selling dope and women laying on small mats as a toddler plays with a bracelet-lined hanger. “It makes Cambodia look dangerous, poor and mean. And it’s not.”
This has not dampened Scroggins’ fond memories, chief among which was opening a second Cantina on Otres beach, specialising in Baja fish tacos until it burned down in 2009. “A pristine beach with squeaky sand, top-shelf tequila, fresh fish tacos, still-warm tortillas. I mean, heaven on earth,” he says. In Phnom Penh, highpoints came down to simply sitting outside with a bottle of tequila and good friends. “Listening to Los Panchos and just digging it,” he adds, reminiscing.
Cantina was Scroggins’ first venture into the restaurant business, and it stuck, likely due to some combination of his connections, the made-from-scratch food, and the long-term staff who run the place. He plans to roll these elements into his next venture, and promises a new Cantina will open before the end of the year in a yet-undetermined location –incorporating the original wooden bar and photographs.
But first, he will head to holiday on Cambodia’s islands, taking with him only the makings for fish tacos – a bag of cornmeal and two bottles of habanero sauce.
“I always said the minute it’s not fun I’ll stop,” he says of Cantina, as Mexican love songs drift from inside. “It’s still been fun. But I’ve had to stop. What do you do?”
For Scroggins, the closure is easy to put in perspective. Years ago while with the UN, he ended up on the side of a smuggling road, injured in a night-time motorcycle accident that would prevent him from walking for two years. Stranded and awaiting help – or, he feared, death – he lay in excruciating pain, spreading tobacco from his cigarette across his face to repel malarial mosquitos, until morning finally came.
“I know I’m going to walk again,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it.”