A rare Chicago specialist in Khmer cuisine hailed as one of the 15 Best New Restaurants in America in 2022, the restaurant will reopen in April at 6580 N. Sheridan Road on the ground floor of the Hampton Inn. Now two miles southeast from the original, Khmai will move into a larger and more modern space that’s owned by Loyola University. Close to the college’s campus, the space previously housed Onward Chicago from Michael Olszewski, ex-owner of three-Michelin-starred Grace and one-starred Yugen.
Though staying in Rogers Park, the restaurant will embark on its new chapter simply as Khmai, a portmanteau of “Khmer,” the ethnicity and language of native Cambodians, and “me,” or mother. It’s a bold name meant to alert diners to the inextricable role of Sang’s mother, Sarom Sieng, in securing the legacy of traditional Cambodian cuisine. Now serving a new community, one that includes college students and professors (as well as hotel guests) Khmai will open with dinner and breakfast, with plans to launch brunch in August.
“We’re still going to be sticking with traditional flavors, but for brunch and breakfast, I can play a little more,” Sang says. “Mom will allow me to do that — we’re negotiating and coming to a middle ground. She doesn’t want me to Americanize our food, but she’s OK with this so far.”
Sang built a customer base with on church catering gigs, and rose to prominence after opening Khmai in 2022, accumulating accolades as a surprise smash-hit on Howard Street near the Evanston border. Mother and daughter were named co-winners of Eater Chicago’s Chefs of the Year award in 2022, and in 2023, the restaurant earned a semifinalist nod from the James Beard Foundation. For Khmai 2.0, a new generation is joining the mix — Sang’s daughter will begin her freshman year at Loyola in the fall and work at the restaurant in her spare time.
For Sang, the opening represents a fresh start after a contentious dynamic with her former landlord forced her to leave the original restaurant space. It’s also a new opportunity to share Cambodian culture and cuisine with even more diners and a chance to play, experiment, and partner with other Cambodian Chicagoans — to be a rising tide that lifts all boats.
“[Cambodians] are still not well known, a lot of people still don’t know about the food and who we are, or about the genocide,” Sang says. “My focus is still wanting to share my mom’s story because I think her story is important — what she went through, how she’s a huge survivor.”
The Cambodian genocide took place between 1975 to 1979 when the totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime murdered between 1.5 and 2 million people. As a survivor, Sieng endured countless horrors, including torture and the murder of her husband, Sang’s father. Sieng gave birth to Sang in a Thai refugee camp, before emigrating with her children to the U.S. as refugees in the early 1980s, first to New York City and later, to Chicago.
Efforts like Sang’s and fellow Cambodian American Ethan Lim of Hermosa are making an impact in raising awareness. During the In Memoriam portion of last month’s Jean Banchet Awards, newspaper columnist Richard Roper mentioned the adversity Mama Lim endured.
Khami’s traditional Cambodian cuisine will remain central at the new location, where dinnertime patrons can expect to find a rotating lineup of rich, complex staples seen at the original such as kuy reav tuk, a rice noodle soup with beef, onions, and crispy garlic. Sang will add a new date-night menu featuring interactive dishes like hot pot and smash-your-own papaya salad, complete with mortar and pestle, as well as a fresh lineup of dessert options such as fried and smashed baby bananas stuffed with banana coconut cream.
Diners should also expect doughnuts from suburban bakery Gurnee Donuts, owned by Sang’s friend Kevin Lee, a fellow first-generation Cambodian American whose parents also survived the genocide. “His mom and my mom are very similar, so we know what it’s like to be Cambodian kids whose parents have gone through trauma and want their kids to be the best of the best,” she says. “When I finally opened up the restaurant, he was one of the first people who was there, inspiring me to keep doing what I do best. He’s always been on my side.”
Cambodians are at the center of a grand doughnut tradition in the U.S., particularly in California. Ted Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee, helped popularize the doughnut trade among Cambodian Americans and his story, immortalized in the 2020 documentary The Donut King, is a symbol of ingenuity that Sang says inspires her and many other Cambodian Americans.
With a new crop of hotel guests and Loyola customers at play, Sang plans to tune into the college crowd with affordable options like rice and beef skewers, as well as Sieng’s popular egg rolls, which she hopes will be a welcome relief for fast food-weary students. Early and mid-morning meals will become her playground for dishes like seasoned fried eggs with chicken and rice, rice porridge (akin to congee) with garnishes like blood sausage or crispy garlic, and pandan waffles with lemongrass chicken and ginger syrup.
The new Khmai will seat 70 inside in addition to an outdoor patio during warm weather. Onward, which opened in 2018, closed amid pandemic shutdown orders and was later the subject of a seemingly messy lawsuit. Its space, though, was immaculate, says Sang, who is happy to avoid expensive construction and simply add her own touches to the space: a black and gold color palette, Regency-style table settings (inspired, she confesses, by habit-forming Netflix confection Bridgerton), and Cambodian artwork from the original restaurant.
Sang is keenly aware of the risks involved in any restaurant operation, but has worked to set her anxieties aside in pursuit of her primary goal — to keep Sieng, now 80, engaged with the world and out from under the fog of trauma.
“I have to make sure she sees that we’re going to do this,” she says. “I want her to know that she deserves it. I don’t care about awards or any of that — I want her to know that we did this, we survived against all odds. If we survived the war, we can survive anything now.”
Khmai 2.0, 6580 N. Sheridan Road, Scheduled for an April opening.