Khmai Will School Loyola and Rogers Park in the Ways of Cambodian Brunch

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Loyola University students at the school’s Rogers Park campus are about to be schooled in the ways of Cambodian cuisine. Their lesson will be taught by Mona Sang, the chef behind Khmai Fine Dining. It’s been nearly six months since Sang closed the original location of her decorated restaurant. The Cambodian refugee is poised to double down on the neighborhood that supported her, pushing Khmai to one of the 2022’s Best New Restaurants in America.

Sang’s opening a pair of restaurants on Loyola’s campus. Beyond a supercharged return of Khmai, adorned with a black and gold color palette and Bridgerton-inspired Regency-style table settings, Sang will unveil the more casual Kaun Khmai — “child of Khmai” in Khmer — an all-day affair with fun cocktails and Cambodian street food. Sang says she created the new addition to better serve the neighborhood, and not depend on the university community. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if a cheaper option would attract more students and faculty. Sang will also launch the city’s only Cambodian brunch services at both restaurants alongside dinner. Sang hopes to reveal breakfast and lunch service in August.

“It’s a lot,” Sang admits. “When you’re opening a restaurant, one thing gets fixed and then five other things break. We have two restaurants with two different menus coming from one kitchen, so we’re trying to perfect that [process].”

A round black plate of egg rolls with dipping sauce.
Khmai’s egg rolls have earned a devoted following.
Jack X. Li/Eater Chicago

The new Khmai stands inside a Loyola University-owned space at 6580 N. Sheridan Road on the ground floor of the Hampton Inn. Hotel guests generally expect daytime options, and Sang is eager to deliver a menu with unique items like fresh croissants filled with lychee or kumquat cream, congee with blood sausage, and num por peay — glutinous rice flour stuffed with yellow mung bean and topped with coconut cream.

Kaun Khmai’s weekend brunch menu will also include doughnuts from suburban bakery Gurnee Donuts, owned by Sang’s friend and fellow first-generation Cambodian American Kevin Lee. Cambodians have played a significant role in the U.S. doughnut industry, particularly in California — a story detailed at length in the 2020 documentary The Donut King.

Sarom Sieng — Sang’s mother and source of culinary inspiration — and Lee’s parents are survivors of the Cambodian genocide, an era from 1975 to 1979 when the totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime murdered between 1.5 and 2 million people. Fellow Cambodian American chef Ethan Lim of Hermosa has also shared parts of his family’s story of survival in interviews and the award-winning PBS documentary short Cambodian Futures.

At the restaurants, Sang has opted to home in on serving her neighbors in Rogers Park rather than purely devoting her efforts to luring Loyola students — an inconsistent presence in the area thanks to the churn of the school year. But Sang is also the mother of an incoming Loyola freshman and spent recent weeks testing recipes on her student employees. She’s noticed that many of them miss eating home-cooked meals and hopes to eventually create low-cost meal kits that students can purchase and make themselves.

At the outset, staff will seat diners for both restaurants in the 40-seat Kaun Khmai space or on a 30-seat patio. Stay tuned for news of an opening date.

Khmai and Kaun Khmai, 6580 N. Sheridan Road, Scheduled to open in June.

Khmai Fine Dining

2043 W. Howard Street, Chicago, IL 60645 312-626-7710 Visit Website

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