Ethan Lim leans in to Cambodian food | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

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Ethan Lim leans in to Cambodian food

Hermosa’s chef makes space on his sandwich menu for the city’s only Khmer food.

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Unless your mom is Cambodian, it seems like every time there’s an opportunity to eat Khmer food in Chicago, it’s the only opportunity. The first time I wrote about it, way back in 2008, there were no restaurants serving it, but twice a year, with a sincere offering to the monks of Uptown’s Watt Khmer Metta on Cambodian New Year, or Ancestors’ Day, you could join in a post-ceremonial feast of outstanding food made by a lot of moms. 

Four years ago, Lombard’s Angkor Restaurant was a bright star that burned out too fast. But not long before that, almost five years to the day, Ethan Lim planted the seeds of what’s promising to be an institution for Khmer food in Chicago. About six months ago, I wrote about Lim and his tiny, terrific Hermosa snack shop, where he was practicing sandwich sorcery, putting iconic, and increasingly Southeast Asian, dishes between buns, which started getting a lot more attention than the dogs and burgers he started with. 

In November, Lim’s sister had a few Khmer noodle soups and curries on her menu at the adjoining pan-Asian Googoo’s Table. Meanwhile he was promising Cambodian food pop-ups in Hermosa, and with the uncompromising December sandwich prahok ktiss, based on the quintessential Khmer dish of pork belly gilded with the fermented mudfish paste kroeung, it seemed he’d planted a flag.

Nom bachok, made with rice noodles and whitefish - COURTESY ETHAN LIM
  • Courtesy Ethan Lim
  • Nom bachok, made with rice noodles and whitefish

Then came COVID-19, and pop-ups in his tiny dining and ordering area no longer make much sense. And yet Lim is pushing forward with a new menu “Cambodian to Go,” offering both a la carte dishes and meal sets—“the way my family would eat”—initially for pickup and soon for delivery through Tock.The outstanding Cambodian fried chicken sandwich remains, but he 86’d two others to make it happen. Gone are the buffalo chicken and chicken parm—to make room for mee kula, a dish that comes from the Kula minority group in western Cambodia. Rice noodles tossed with pickled cucumbers, crunchy bean sprouts, preserved radish bits, crushed peanuts, and the light marine funk of dried shrimp powder and fish sauce, it hits a dozen pleasure points at once. Nom bachok is a soupier rice noodle dish with whitefish, built on a broth seasoned with kroeung, coconut, and swimming with banana blossoms and herbs, while a seemingly simple and comforting congee is a riot of flavors and textures when you dose the hot rice porridge with chicken floss, fried garlic, salted soybeans, and sambal, along with cilantro, culantro, scallions, and ginger. He’s perfecting his fried banana recipe for dessert.

One afternoon last week a masked Lim showed up at my door like the ninja Kakashi Hatake, bearing a prototype meal kit containing the congee, mee kula, and a salad of sweet, delicate head-on grilled shrimp, crushed peanuts, herbs, cucumbers, and fried shallots. The centerpiece tek prahok sach ko was a nod to French Indochina that Lim calls “Cambodian steak frites,” a perfectly rare sliced ribeye, with a bag of Lim’s crackly battered fries, the ideally durable spud variant to survive the length of a delivery order. These are to be dunked in a deadly rich garlic aioli balanced by a little tub of powerful tek prahok for the steak; a dipping sauce of kroeung, roasted fish paste, and lime juice, incorporated with green Thai eggplants, and “all the herbs you can imagine.”

Ethan Lim and the burgeoning herb garden at Hermosa - COURTESY ETHAN LIM
  • Courtesy Ethan Lim
  • Ethan Lim and the burgeoning herb garden at Hermosa

Lim has converted his western-facing dining area into sort of a greenhouse for those herbs—Vietnamese coriander, Thai basil, lemongrass, ginger, cilantro, culantro, and amazingly, a jackfruit plant he started from a pit. Meanwhile a friend is showcasing kokodama—Japanese moss-mounted ornamental plants, while another, Anthony Scardino, aka Professor Pizza, has been holding down a residency on Fridays and Saturdays. 

Lim plans to rotate in new dishes, all part of his long-running scheme to introduce customers to the food he grew up eating, and comfort those who grew up eating it too. One such crowdpleaser is his mom’s kaw daan, the peppery soy-braised pork belly and egg dish she made regularly for family meals in the family restaurant. 

Lim gave the Reader the recipe for this special dish, and it’s one of 80 featured in our new cookbook, Reader Recipes: Chicago Cooks and Drinks at Home, released this week and benefitting the Reader and the Comp Tab Relief Fund for hospitality workers. Lim is joined by a Murderers’ Row of Chicago chefs and bartenders who contributed—Bayless, Kahan, Izard, Cikowski, Zaragoza, Steuer, Williams, and many more. 

You can buy the cookbook here, but if you don’t feel like braising Momma Lim’s pork belly for a few hours, her son is donating proceeds from any orders he gets for the kaw daan to Comp Tab himself.  v

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