Ethan Lim says he’s “a pretty normal person,” but it’s tough to imagine that just any person could create Hermosa, Lim’s extraordinary restaurant on Chicago’s Northwest Side.
Chicago filmmaker Dustin Nakao-Haider thought so, too — enough so, in fact, that he made Lim the subject of a new documentary, Cambodian Futures, which will stream via PBS’s digital platforms, including PBS.com, in late April.
The film premiered in March at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana. It’s part of American Masters documentary shorts series called In the Making from Firelight Media. It’s a story of the unique nature of Lim’s culinary voice — he’s a Buddhist, a brother, a son born of his family’s experience surviving the Cambodian genocide and seeking refuge in the United States — that is making its mark on the city’s hospitality industry.
“As I delved deeper and started to unpack some of Cambodia’s history in my first sit-down interview, I realized that [Lim] has this amazing storytelling ability,” says Nakao-Haider. “He’s an extremely intelligent, insightful, thoughtful person. You’ll ask him one or two questions and he’ll unfurl this incredible idea you won’t see coming.”
Lim’s life stateside wasn’t mundane. The 41-year-old comes from a family of restaurateurs that has operated for more than 40 years in Hermosa, the Northwest Side neighborhood that’s also the same name of his restaurant. In 1984, Lim and his family arrived in Chicago amid a wave of Cambodians seeking refuge in the United States. They followed Lim’s grandfather, who had already settled in Albany Park and opened a restaurant near the corner of Kostner and Armitage avenues where Hermosa restaurant and Googoo’s Table (a pan-Asian spot also owned by the family) now stand. Lim’s family owns a total of six Chicago establishments, standing out in a sea of businesses that mostly cater to its local Mexican community.
Despite being an honors student, Lim dropped out of high school prompted by his fascination with food and restaurants, one fueled by his family’s businesses. His resume includes stints at Michelin-starred Next as well as the Aviary, where he was a host and server from 2012 to 2014. Lim’s birth in a Thai refugee camp and his family’s postwar transition to American life ultimately laid the groundwork for a philosophy of cuisine that he’s dubbed “culinary futurism.”
“I wanted to find out how Cambodian food would evolve if the war had not happened,” says Lim.
The Cambodian genocide, perpetrated by the autocratic Khmer Rouge regime and its leader Pol Pot, lasted from 1975 to 1979. The brutal and totalitarian extremist political group murdered between 1.5 and 2 million people, nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population. Though a great deal of the Khmer Rouge’s violence was indiscriminate, the group specifically targeted more than 20 of the country’s ethnic groups, including Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Cham, as well as religious minorities, academics, doctors, journalists, political adversaries, and many others.
Lim’s family shares much in common with the owners of another Chicago Cambodian restaurant. Mona Sang is a fellow survivor of the Cambodian genocide, and in 2021 she and her mother opened Khmai Fine Dining on a quiet street in Rogers Park. Selected as one of Eater’s 2022 Best New Restaurants, it also snagged a spot on the James Beard Foundation’s longlist of semifinalists for best new restaurant in 2023.
Though they haven’t met or corresponded, Sang says she’s eaten Lim’s food and watched his journey with interest and pride. Though their approaches to Cambodian cuisine differ, both chefs have voiced concern over the often-muddy language around the concept of culinary influence, a pattern in some restaurants that invokes Cambodian flavors as one of numerous sources of inspiration with little context or depth.
“I love what he’s doing — I feel strongly that our people should be out there, more well-known and not compared to any culture other than [our own],” Sang says. “If somebody opened a Cambodian restaurant down the street from me, that would be wonderful. I don’t want to change the world. I just want to put a tiny handprint in it to say that I was here. Twenty, 30 years from now, I want to know that our people exist, they are here now and will stay here forever.”
The Lims, who are ethnically Cambodian Chinese, fled their home country for a camp in Thailand before joining a flood of Cambodian refugees who immigrated in the early 1980s to the U.S. Lim’s mother and father, “Momma Lim” and Lim Meng Kim, owned a noodle stand before the war, so running a restaurant in Chicago came naturally. They served Cantonese dishes and other Chinese American dishes, like kung pao chicken, to cater to an American palate only familiar with what the first wave of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. served.
As Lim grew more experienced in the kitchen, he says he began to notice the chasm between the food served in his family’s restaurants and the dishes they ate at home — funky, rich, meals characterized by Cambodian staples like prahok, a salted and fermented fish paste, and kreung, a distinctive spice blend of makrut lime leaves, turmeric, galangal, and lemongrass.
Lim’s family preferred to play it safe rather than expose their customers to homestyle cuisine. It’s a dilemma many immigrants face, but one that Lim boldly tackles with his menu at Hermosa: “His parents were very skeptical of him doing Cambodian food initially,” Nakao-Haider says. “[He] talks about how a lot of these flavors and tastes can bring up bad memories and past traumas.”
When Hermosa opened in 2015, Lim only served sandwiches: burgers, chicken Parm, and pepper-and-egg sandwiches. As his audience grew, so did Lim’s ambitions, and in the following years he began to introduce Asian-style options using Korean, Cambodian, and Thai marinades and techniques. Creations like a moo ping sandwich found a place on the menu next to the burgers and fries. Lim’s fries are fresh cut and come with a variety of gourmet dips.
Aware of his parents’ doubts that Cambodian flavors would catch on, Lim grew quietly defiant; he was going to bridge this gap, and he’d do it with one of America’s favorite dishes — fried chicken, one with an extensive international appeal. In 2019, Lim added a Cambodian fried chicken sandwich to the menu at Hermosa — a skin-on chicken thigh that’s marinated in kreung, deep fried, and crowned with a bright and punchy herb salad of Thai basil, cilantro, pickled papaya, and long beans. It rapidly became one of the most-discussed dishes in town.
Encouraged by the response, Lim began to push more Cambodian flavors, including the nation’s signature spicy and sweet pork belly with prahok ktiss. Like the fried chicken sandwich, his new creations struck a chord with patrons and lunch business boomed to the point where Lim sought a second outlet for his culinary experimentation.
That manifested a fine dining-style dinner series in his cozy dining room, where parties essentially could buy out the restaurant. Reservations for Hermosa’s Family Meal soon became one of the city’s hotter tickets, especially as pandemic mitigations favored isolation. Family Meal gives Lim’s customers a BYO fine dining experience from a space as tiny as most hot dog stands with a wall plastered with sun-faded panels from 1980s Marvel Comics with heroes like the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Captain America. Lim’s approach to his restaurant in asking “What would Cambodian food look like if the genocide didn’t happen?” is reminiscent of an alternative world, the kind of story ripped from a Marvel “What If...?” book. While Lim enjoys a day foraging in the forest, he also appreciates the escape that playing through a good video game can provide.
This is how Hermosa showcases its chef’s personality. It’s where Lim can honor traditional Khmer foodways that were based on a farming lifestyle where a nuclear family structure allowed for extensive preparation and cooking times.
“I’m trying to look at that next [stage], where we yearn for the same flavors we ate growing up but don’t have time to do it all,” Lim says. “For me, what’s realistic is to still honor that tradition in a format or dish like a sandwich that can be easily put together but you still have all those flavor notes — funkiness, sourness, Thai basil, cilantro, hot chiles.”
The meal changes seasonally and based on the preferences of the diner. Family Meal may include noodles, steak, or a perfectly prepared roast chicken. Lim is shy in receiving praise, preferring to place credit on his family’s recipes.
The son of a Japanese American mother whose family endured incarceration during World War II and a father who survived the British Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Nakao-Haider, an Evanston native, says he and Lim found kinship in the nuances of their experience.“Growing up with an Asian mother myself, I could understand Ethan’s intense Asian mom,” he says. “She’s not going to heap praise on him, but she’ll give him approval in a way she can – a curt nod of acceptance.”
Last spring, Lim received that sought-after nod of approval from his family when he was named Rising Chef of the Year at Chicago’s Jean Banchet Awards. Linda Chao, the oldest of Lim’s eight siblings and the owner of Googoo’s Table, says she’s proud of her brother and the food he’s making. Their age difference is significant — Chao got married and was starting her own family when Lim was a child — but the close proximity of their restaurants has brought them closer in recent years. “He has a big heart and always helps his family with whatever [we] need,” she says.
For its part, Cambodian Futures has also earned accolades. In March, it was named best short documentary at the 2023 DisOrient Film Awards in Eugene, Oregon. In addition to a festival run, the series is set to debut online Tuesday, April 25 and will be broadcast on PBS.
“It’s my first time being involved in this sort of project and I’m sort of spoiled and blessed by it,” says Lim. “I’m excited for what this new chapter holds. It feels weird at the same time, because I think I’m a pretty normal person. There aren’t a lot of things [about me] that are interesting, in my humble opinion.”