Cambodia on a bun | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Cambodia on a bun 

Hermosa’s Ethan Lim looks around the globe and asks, “Will it sandwich?”

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click to enlarge Hermosa's Cambodian fried chicken sandwich

Hermosa's Cambodian fried chicken sandwich

Jack X. Li for Chicago Reader

Ethan Lim's family members were apprehensive about the Cambodian fried chicken sandwich.

Between Lim's parents and nine siblings the family owns and operates eight restaurants and doughnut shops. And for the past four and a half years he's run his own place, Hermosa, an eight-stool counter-service sandwich shop around the corner from Googoo's Table, a Chinese restaurant owned by a brother and two sisters.

All during this time Lim has barely called attention to himself, instead focusing on executing affordable, chef-level fast food for the neighborhood—dogs, burgers, chicken Parm, pepper-and-egg sandwiches. But he's also quietly introduced a succession of next-level specialties born from one simple question: Will it sandwich?

Over the years he's rotated experiments in and out based on dishes that don't typically take sandwich form: The char-siu-egg fried rice "554" at Chinatown's Seven Treasures; the deep-fried salt cod and potato-brandade croquette topped with brussels-sprouts slaw on a Spanish batard inspired by a memorable meal at Avec; the herbaceous Persian frittata kuku sabzi, topped with braised mushrooms on a buttery bun.

But the Cambodian fried chicken sandwich is among a trio of newer sandwiches for which Lim has drawn upon his family's own home cooking. It made its debut in early August, just as the hysteria surrounding Popeyes spicy fried chicken sandwich set off, and featured a skin-on chicken thigh marinated in the foundational herbal spice paste known as kroeung—here, lemongrass, garlic, galangal, turmeric, and makrut lime leaf—along with fish sauce, soy sauce, and sugar. It's dusted in rice flour, deep-fried, and topped with a sweet-and-spicy papaya salad with chopped long beans and a bouquet of herbs: Thai basil, cilantro, culantro, mint, and, once in a while, when he can find it (or has grown it himself)—fish mint, diep cá, as it's known in Vietnamese, a plant that somehow marries terrestrial herbal freshness with briny aquatic funk.

Lim's siblings were worried that this sandwich—which stimulates every pleasure point in the human nervous system—would nevertheless somehow be too out-there for palates not raised on its particularly funky Cambodian flavor profile.

"We had a long chat about it," says Lim. "I was like, 'This is something we like to eat. Why don't we trust our palates?'"

Lim was right. Right now it's his best-selling sandwich, and though there are no lines for it (yet), it does take him 20 minutes to assemble.

It's worth the wait, but two recent additions can't be overlooked. The "moo ping" is a mashup of Thai-grilled pork shoulder and the minced-pork salad laab, its chopped-cabbage garnish dressed with Isan-style nam jim jaew dipping sauce, the whole package dusted with an extra-level textural counterpoint of toasted ground rice. He took his mother's recipe for Chinese-style beef brisket noodle,ngau nam, typically eaten with a French-style baguette, and created its logical sandwich extension: a French dip served with a side of the five-spice-redolent braising jus.

Nothing irritates Lim like when he sees a dish on a menu described as "flavors of" a particular cuisine, only to find it tosses in a few representative ingredients and barely approaches the depth of the original. "I want to make it so someone that's Cambodian can come out and recognize a dish even if it's in sandwich form."

Lim, whose family fled the war in Cambodia, was born in a Thai refugee camp. In 1984, when he was four, the family came to Chicago, where his grandfather had already settled in Albany Park, and where he'd soon open the family's first restaurant, where Hermosa and Googoo's is now located. Lim grew up working in the kitchen, wrapping wontons, taking orders, and expediting in the family's growing number of restaurants. He sold shoes and then cars for eight years after high school, but still stayed in the game, attending Kendall College for a time and working in the kitchen at the late Spring. After getting laid off from a sales job, he went all-in and took a succession of front-of-the-house positions at Aviary, Next, and Balena.

That's where he was working when his father offered him the chance to do his own thing. Hermosa's address is listed on Armitage, the same as Googoo's, but its entrance is just around the corner on Kostner. You can't tell anything about it from the outside—apart from the cartoon doughnut and knife and fork on the sign (a sister operates Somethin' Sweet doughnuts in Cragin and Albany Park), but over the years Lim's built up neighborhood loyalty. The $7.95 Vienna Beef hot dog combo (two franks, fries, and a soda), along with a $3.50 corn dog and a $1 junior ice cream cone—have established it as a reliable after-school hangout.

Initially Lim just concentrated on the classics, with some cheffy enhancements, such as red-onion jam on the burger, the bacon-fat-cooked kraut on the Reuben, the Bolognese and real Parm in the supersized pizza puffs (since 86'd). But he also displayed a prescient sense for oncoming sandwich trends. His first specialty was a crispy tonkotsu cutlet sandwich with spicy mustard that he introduced just before the panko-breaded sandwich became an Instagram celebrity.

He's since rotated that off the menu, but some introductions have become permanent—like the cheesesteak: Chinese-style rib eye marinated in black pepper, cross-pollinated with poblanos and a fetching blanket of melted Chihuahua cheese. A spicy pork sandwich is topped with pickled daikon and cucumber—typical side dishes one would be served at a Korean BBQ—in the same way a bulgogi steak sandwich is bound to its bread with gochujang mayo.

Scratch toppings such as the latter are important to Lim, serving as binders between the protein and rolls Lim gets from Highland Bakery. This is his standard sandwich vehicle, with a crackly exterior but enough tensility to contain unruly fillings normally allowed to spread out on plates or in bowls.

Lim's focus on the food he grew up on has been recently discovered and boosted by various food media personalities, notably Best food writer (of "your mama" jokes) Dennis Lee, who lives nearby. There doesn't seem to be any confusion or apprehension in the face of the flavor profiles, which don't hold anything back.

Last week, Lim introduced his most Cambodian sandwich yet, and it's another triumph: pork belly with an understory of the dipping paste prahok ktiss, made with ground pork belly, kroeung, and fermented mudfish paste, topped with grilled shishito peppers, and green Thai eggplants. It is one of Cambodia's signature dishes, sandwiched, and it is glorious: spicy, fatty, a little bit sweet, and yeah, sure, it's funky, but not too out there by any stretch of the imagination.

"If you like bleu cheese on steak it has that draw to it," says Lim. These sandwich successes have inspired him to start planning a Cambodian food pop-up after the new year at Hermosa, featuring noodles, street snacks, and of course, sandwiches. "My parents are significantly older, along with my siblings," he says. "It's me trying to archive the recipes and what they do before they're gone."   v

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