Whether it is your first or tenth visit to Khmai, you will be treated like a regular. Friendly staff greet you with a warm Cambodian greeting. Waiters tell you their favorite dishes and discuss all the tastings they did that day. The chef will bring a plate of savory crepes to the table and joke that his mother (who also works here) refuses to let anyone else make the banh chow because hers are the best.
There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie at this Cambodian restaurant. But it’s fantastic Khmai food and ever changing menu that keeps us coming back.
Khmai is one of only two Cambodian restaurants in Chicago, Hermosa being the other. It started as a catering service, started hosting pop-up dinner parties, and finally has a permanent space in Rogers Park. Here you will hear the soft tones of Khmer music and eat while the televisions broadcast images of the city, landscapes and traditional Cambodian dances. It’s easy to relax in the laid-back space, full of friends unwilling to give up the last beef skewer (understandable) or couples realizing that one order of tamarind wings just isn’t enough (also understandable).
The Khmai menu changes regularly, but unlike what you buy scratch, the dishes always end up being a success. One week they might have somlar machu kreoung, a soothing tamarind broth filled with tender ribs and vegetables. Or maybe a bowl of fluffy vermicelli topped with a rich coconut sauce and ground chicken. If you’re lucky, they’ll have the sach ko ang: juicy beef skewers covered in an irresistible sweet-salty marinade with a pleasant hint of lemongrass.
Every dish is delicious – a complex layering of flavors and textures that makes us say “Okay, this is our favorite. But after multiple visits and seeing our “favorites” disappear, we learned not to get too attached. We just enjoy everything amazing on our plate.
May egg rolls
What makes these spring rolls so good are the pieces of taro inside, which add a little nuttiness to complement the ground chicken and mung bean noodle filling. It comes with a fantastic tuk trei, their house spicy fish sauce, which adds umami and tartness to every crispy bite.
Sach Koh Ang
Life is full of uncertainties, but one thing you can count on is that we’ll order the sach koh ang every time we see it on the menu. These fatty beef skewers have a nice balance of sweet, salty, and spicy, and might be the best thing here. Each order comes with rice, as well as jrouk and tuk trei for a little sourness.
Morn Ang slab
The reason why we said sach koh ang strength to be the best dish is because these chicken wings exist. The tender chicken is smothered in a sweet and tangy tamarind sauce that is absolutely worth licking your fingers after. In addition, we strongly recommend that you also dip the spring rolls in this sauce.
Laab Sach Morn
The only thing more action-packed than a John Wick the movie is that salad. Each fork is a play between contrasting elements – spicy chili peppers with refreshing lime and tuk trei, hot chicken with fresh radishes, bell peppers and bean sprouts – all of which are crispy thanks to the grilled rice and peanuts .
Somlar Machu Kreoung
If setting nine phone alarms isn’t enough to get you out of bed, then maybe the smell of lemongrass and herbs emanating from Khmai’s somlar machu kreoung will. The tamarind broth is tangy, spicy, and full of tender ribs, eggplant, celery, and jalapeño. Order this.
This is a build your own noodle bowl situation. A platter of vermicelli and vegetables is served alongside a bowl of creamy coconut milk, minced chicken, garlic and shallots. When everything is tossed together, the noodles absorb the rich sauce and the fresh bean sprouts, chili peppers, pumpkin blossom and a squeeze of lime add brightness.