Khmai Cambodian Fine Dining mesmerizes Chicago reviewer

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It should be clear from the start: Khmai, the second Cambodian restaurant in town, deserves praise for dishes as complex and entrancing as anything I’ve eaten all year.

I’m far from the only one who knows the secret. On my first visit, I sat at a table by Erick Williams, Virtue’s celebrity chef, while on the other side sat Ethan Lim, who runs Hermosa, the other dedicated Cambodian restaurant in town. Khmai, run by Mona Sang with guidance from her mother, Sarom Sieng, is often overflowing with customers; so that the kitchen is not overwhelmed, the host regularly turns people away without a reservation.

But sometimes, to tell a story well, you have to start at the beginning. And for Sang and Sieng, their journey to Chicago began as their family fled a massacre in Cambodia in the late 1970s.

The family still bears the scars of departure. Sarom Sieng and her husband, Chrrom, lost two of their sons to death as the family crossed the Thai border. “She was also pregnant with me as she walked barefoot through the jungle,” Mona Sang said. “She was bitten by a snake. She could hear gunshots all around her.

When they arrived at the refugee camp, Sieng gave birth without any medical care. “I was able to survive, even without a doctor,” Sang said. Chrom, distraught at never seeing the rest of his extended family again, tried to sneak out to say goodbye. He was never seen again.

Thanks to an aunt who was already in Chicago; sponsors of World Relief, a global Christian humanitarian organization; and Reba Place Church in Evanston, the family was able to move to the United States. But they faced different struggles here. “We were a really, really poor family,” Sang said. “We didn’t speak English and my mother suffered from (post-traumatic stress disorder). I remember being made fun of. My brother and I had to share the same shirts. I have many stories.

Ethan Lim, who was also born in a refugee camp in Thailand when his parents had to leave Cambodia, understands the complexities. “A lot of times there’s the trauma of leaving Cambodia, and there’s the trauma of coming here and not feeling familiar,” Lim said.

Through it all, cooking has helped Sieng adapt. “She was cleaning houses to make money and then going to buy food on Argyle Street to make spring rolls,” Sang said, referring to the stretch of Uptown filled with Southeast Asian groceries. Sieng has also spent many hours cooking for her church, the Living Water Community Church.

Sang learned to love helping her mother in the kitchen and eventually became interested in a culinary career. For six years, Sang worked at The Ivy Room, Lettuce Entertain You’s private event space.

Khmai chef Mona Sang prepares plear sach koh at Khmai Cambodian Fine Dining on September 22, 2022.

But another tragedy shook the family. “My brother, Samuel, died before the pandemic, and it broke his heart,” Sang said of his mother. “The church community was there for her, but when the pandemic happened, she couldn’t go to church, which is such an important part of her life. She fell into a depression where she would just sit there and not respond. We didn’t know what to do. At the same time, with the private events industry decimated by the pandemic, Sang was put on leave.

Sang thanks his son for helping turn things around. “He wanted a Cambodian dish, so I went to Argyle Street and got everything I knew how to do,” Sang said. “I could tell my mother smelled like cooking. After a few times of cooking alone in the kitchen, one day she got up and started chopping vegetables, and we started cooking together. She even said to me: ‘You are wrong.’ I was like, ‘Hey, this is something. I take it!’ ”

After posting photos of the Cambodian dishes she and her mother were cooking on social media, friends asked if they could buy some for themselves. This led them to launch Mona Bella Catering. An article by Mike Sula in the Chicago Reader helped draw even more attention. Then Steve Dolinsky covered it. Suddenly, the idea of ​​opening a restaurant no longer seemed out of the question. “(My mother) didn’t think it was possible in a million years to open a Cambodian restaurant,” Sang said.

Khmai’s seemingly instant success proved Sang right, even though his dedication required him to work very long hours. “We do everything fresh, from cooking the soup to preparing the vegetables,” Sang said. “When you cut a vegetable in advance, it loses its color and texture.” Only the spring rolls are prepared in advance, but that’s only because the store consumes 500 to 600 a week.

The famous May spring rolls are stuffed with ground chicken, bean-spun noodles and taro root, served with rice, jrouk and tuk trei.

You’ll notice that most tables order these crispy May spring rolls, which feature tender ground chicken, taro root and bean noodles. As an accompaniment, you will find a bright red sauce called tuk trei, a condiment that is both funky and tasty, but acidic and spicy.

But I didn’t find any misfire on the boot section. One of the most traditional starters is tuk kreoung, a catfish dip loaded with aromatic lemongrass and savory fish sauce, along with lime juice, palm sugar and prahok, a fish paste fermented often used in Cambodian cuisine. To counter this, you are given crunchy fresh vegetables on the side. Sach koh ang are skewers topped with irresistibly juicy chunks of beef marinated in lemongrass and chillies.

Plear sach koh is thinly sliced ​​sirloin steak tossed with prahok or tuk trei, lime juice, palm sugar, green peppers, fresno, mushrooms, cucumbers, bean sprouts, radishes and cabbage and topped with fresh herbs and roasted peanuts.

I don’t know if I can visit without ordering the plear sach koh, a huge salad loaded with bright green herbs, crisp vegetables and thin slices of grilled beef. It is coated in a slightly sweet, pleasantly acidic and very spicy sauce, an enticing combination that wins me over every time. Sang said her mother was adamant about how the dish was prepared. “My mom won’t let me chop herbs,” Sang said. “They have to be handpicked. Vegetables are also cut when the order arrives.

The heart of the menu is in the Traditional Khmai section. I immediately fell for the amok morn, a complex coconut curry made with tender pieces of chicken wrapped in a steamed flavored banana leaf and topped with crispy lime leaves. “You should be able to taste waves of different flavors,” Sang said. “It starts with sweet and savory, before moving to grilled crunch, then spiciness.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Amok sach morn is chicken marinated in Khmer spices wrapped in banana leaves, topped with crispy lime leaves and fresh herbs.

Other dishes embody comfort. Nom bah chok, one of Cambodia’s most popular noodle dishes, features minced tilapia in a coconut fish broth, with thin, steamy rice noodles for dipping.

Given that Chicago only has two Cambodian restaurants, it’s understandable that customers don’t know a dish. Luckily the staff at Khmai are more than happy to guide you through the menu. Just be aware that because the dishes are not prepared ahead of time, don’t go here if you’re looking for a quick dinner. While the shop is very busy, the staff does the right thing by limiting the number of diners, even though the dining room could accommodate a lot more. Sang also watches over her mother, making sure she doesn’t work too much. “I’m like, you’re 80,” Sang said. “You have to slow down.”

Considering how much work goes into making so many different dishes, part of me hopes Sang will find a way to slow down as well. While there are no low points, she could cut menu offerings in half to make it easier for herself. The menu also changes every two to three weeks, which adds to the complexity, though it certainly shows the depth of Sang’s knowledge.

But when I told Sang about it on the phone, she didn’t seem fazed by the long hours. “It’s important to me and to my community,” Sang said. “We have been lost for so long. Cambodians have been through so much, but we can manage on our own. We can do it.”

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2043 Howard Street West.

312-626-7710

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Note from the podium: Between excellent and very good, 2½ stars

Open: Tuesday to Friday, 3:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.

Prices: Small bites and appetizers, $7 to $14; entrees, $14 to $19; dessert, $5-$7

Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible, with bathrooms on the first floor

Noise: Friendly conversation

Classification key: Four stars, exceptional; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

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