Khmai Fine Dining is a unique Cambodian restaurant in Rogers Park, Chicago. Owned by executive chef Mona Sang, the name is a mix of “Khmer,” the language and ethnicity of native Cambodians, and “me,” the Khmer term for mother, to emphasize her mother’s important role in presenting traditional Cambodian cuisine.
Mona, together with her sister, two brothers, and mother Sarom Sieng came to the US in early 1980 after surviving the Cambodian genocide. The Khmer Rouge tortured Sarom and executed her husband as the family fled to Thai refugee camps.
A single mother who never spoke English, Sarom began cooking for other families in the Cambodian community in order to survive and eventually expanded into catering events at Living Water Community Church in Rogers Park.
Mona hasn’t heard every detail of Sarom’s experience during the genocide, but the trauma her mother went through is still very clear to her. “I don’t know the whole story, but she tells it little by little when she’s cooking,” Mona told Eater Chicago. “I think there’s a lot of other people out there who have been through the same thing, but their story has never been told.”
In 2018, another family tragedy came when one of Mona’s brothers died unexpectedly in his sleep. Her mother discovered him the next morning and that image haunted Sarom.
Now that she is almost 80 years old, Sarom spends her days with her 13 grandchildren or assisting at Khmai.
According to Eater, Mona isn’t simply conveying a message to its customers with Khmai’s name. It is also a way of healing and writing a love letter to her mother who has fought for them to survive through the restaurant.
Khmai’s mesmerizing dishes include “Nom Bahn Chok”, a vermicelli noodle dish with minced tilapia marinated in kreoung and prahok, simmered in coconut fish stock, “Sach Koh Ang”, beef skewers marinated in lemongrass, Khmer spices and chili peppers, and Mai’s famous eggrolls stuffed with ground chicken, bean thread noodles and taro root.