Khmai Fine Dining, the lauded Cambodian restaurant, hailed as one of the 15 Best New Restaurants in America in 2022, will close in November, leaving its Rogers Park home for a new location, according to chef and owner Mona Sang.
The restaurant, led by Sang with an assist from her mother, racked up accolades after debuting in 2022 as a surprise hit near the Evanston border at 2043 W. Howard Street. The story of how Sang and her mother, Sarom Sieng — both refugees — arrived in America helped buoy the restaurant’s mission of teaching Chicagoans about Khmer food; Khmai is a rare local specialist in traditional Cambodian cuisine. Sang’s efforts would earn a nod from the James Beard Foundation.
Sang hasn’t finalized the restaurant’s new location but says she’s working to keep Khmai in Rogers Park. “It’s kind of home to us,” she tells Eater Chicago. “The Rogers Park community has been with us since day one. We want to make sure they stay with us through this journey.”
Khmai will hold its final service ahead of the move on Thursday, November 30, Sang tells followers on Instagram. Once the original restaurant is closed, Sang and her team plan to spend the subsequent months working toward a fresh debut. They aim to unveil the new space in February or March.
Though Khmai was officially founded in 2022, the restaurant is a culmination of Sang’s lifetime of experience. Sieng, Sang, and her siblings are survivors of the Cambodian genocide, the systematic mass murder of between 1.5 and 2 million people by the totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. Sang’s father was among those killed by the regime. The surviving family arrived in the U.S. as refugees in the early 1980s and eventually settled in Chicago.
Before the genocide, Sieng and her husband were farmers and operated a small restaurant. Sieng brought her culinary know-how with her to Chicago, cooking for her own children and other Cambodian families before expanding into catering. Sang learned to cook from Sieng and went on to spend six years working at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ Ivy Room event space.
Sang also wants to make sure the new location will be accessible to her 80-year-old mother who lives near the current restaurant and struggles with travel due to her age. Even the prospect of a short break for the move makes Sieng sad, Sang says: “My mom can’t sit still — she never wants to leave the restaurant.”
She’s eager to keep her mother in the kitchen. “Right now she’s healthy, she’s doing great. She’s as happy as I’ve seen her... I want to [find] a space that’s going to be near her so she can enjoy as much as she can in the restaurant.”