Somewhere in Chicago, there’s a space that shape-shifts from an occasional sandwich shop by day to the toughest table in town on certain nights.
It’s perhaps best known for a Cambodian fried chicken sandwich, inspired by a Khmer-grilled beef skewer, translated into a refugee family meal, interpreted by an immigrant son’s after-school obsessions.
Hermosa has somehow become an identity-fluid restaurant that intersects public praise and critical acclaim.
“I call myself the owner and content creator,” said Ethan Lim earnestly. “Basically being a one-man show, I’m not just wearing a chef’s hat.”
Yet Lim is, in fact, an extraordinary chef.
I’ve previously chronicled his whimsical “Will it sandwich?” period. A highlight for me was his 554, a riff on the Chinatown dish of char siu and egg over rice. Lim exhibited exhilarating craft in tender slices of warmly spiced Cantonese barbecue pork.
He named his restaurant after the neighborhood where it’s found. It means “beautiful” in Spanish, the first language of most neighbors in the Northwest Side bungalow belt.
“Hermosa restaurant is a constant evolution for what I feel we need at a certain given moment,” Lim said.
In the moment when he opened in 2015, that meant a hot dog and sandwich shop. That’s what Lim felt the neighborhood was missing, eventually garnering a following of high school kids and sandwich enthusiasts. . It was also an re-introduction to the corner where his family opened a Chinese-American restaurant next door in 1986. A sister and brother now own Googoo’s Table in its place. Another brother and their parents moved the original restaurant, Kim Long, nearby.
The family is ethnically Chinese, but culturally Cambodian, with three generations of conflict migrants. His grandparents fled China during the Cultural Revolution. His parents were born in Cambodia, but fled during the Vietnam War. Lim was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, before they escaped to Chicago.
They held on through food.
“When the pandemic happened, it was more of a focus on ‘Well, how do we provide service, food and hospitality to guests in different capacities?’” Lim said. “Hermosa in essence is now a space where we can serve my menu focused on Cambodian cuisine and (are) offering that to the public in multiple forms.”
One of those aforementioned forms has become a coveted dinner series he’s titled Family Meal, which is already sold out until early next summer, nine months in advance. Lim transforms the tiny storefront into a private dining room with a single table to serve seven to eight courses, BYOB. The restaurant remains takeout-only otherwise. The price ranges between $495 for up to four guests and $695 for up to six.
I did not dine at the private table, because the odds I could do so twice — a rule of thumb for most of the Tribune’s restaurant reviews — were slim to none.
Luckily, Lim just launched a family meal to-go, featuring fan-favorite dishes from the sold-out dinners. It’s made possible with the help of his sole employee, Miguel Huerta. They worked together previously at The Aviary, with Lim in the front of the house at the cocktail bar by The Alinea Group, and nearby at Next.
Takeout stars his Cambodian fried chicken dinner ($75 for two, $135 for four) with a constellation of courses. He recently added roasted chicken, prepared how his family actually cooks the main dish at home.
A pair of traditional potted dips alluringly set the stage with teuk kroeung, a whitefish dip, and prahok ktiss, a coconut pork belly dip. The whitefish, silky and bright with mackerel and lime, hints at deeper undertones of fish sauce and prahok, the fermented fish paste prolific in Southeast Asian food. With the soft pork belly, crimson red dribbles of fat warn of heat, which instead invites with smoke and aromatics.
“Pork belly gets browned to give a nice Maillard component,” Lim said. “Then alliums, garlic and onions, get fried up with guajillo pepper paste, kroeung and coconut milk.”
The guajillo takes the place of traditional peppers, but kroeung, the seasoning paste, is as elemental as they come.
“There are multiple types of kroeung,” Lim said. “The one that gets used in the Cambodian fried chicken is makrut lime leaves, lemongrass, garlic, galangal — being the big difference — and turmeric.”
Floral and herbaceous, the marinade infuses the bird with an elusive aroma before it is fried to a golden crackling crust.
Neither is based on a traditional Cambodian chicken dish. Then again, none of what Lim makes is true Cambodian cuisine, but thrilling food that’s mostly his own.
“It’s based on a lot of grilled meats that are traditional in Cambodian cuisine,” Lim said. “The dish that I think most Cambodians can associate with would be the beef skewer sticks, sach ko jakak.”
The Cambodian fried chicken sandwich ($10) is available at lunch. A huge, encrusted boneless thigh, embraced by a brioche bun, holds a crisp thatch of seasonal herbs that subtly yet definitively make it one of the greatest of culinary convergences.
“You’re always going to find the trio of what I call the classic Southeast Asian herbs: Thai basil, cilantro and scallions,” Lim said. You’ll find long beans and, sometimes, herbs he’s grown on there too.
His most surprising dish is currently the griddled rice ($6), available at lunch and on the dine-in dinner menu as a variation. It’s another translation, this time of the Chinese sticky rice found during dim sum with lap cheong Chinese sausage, chicken and scallions. Lim makes his with socarrat-inspired texture and powerful black peppery heat.
Some kind of rice, griddled or not, seemed to be the missing element to the family meal to-go. As a whole, it includes essentially eight courses: the fried chicken (six pieces in the dinner for two), the dips, crudites, a crispy fish salad, a pickled papaya salad, pickled Thai eggplant (in the style of Italian melanzane sotto aceto) and little fried bananas. The intricate salads and complex pickles served as delicately balanced foils, but the dessert was dull for the effort.
The rice originated as part of his series of lower-priced items in a neighborhood where what he’s doing remains highly unusual, and the private dinners, for the most part, out of reach.
I wondered: What happened to his high school kid regulars?
“The high school kids that used to just purchase burgers and hot dogs, they’ll text me, ‘Can we order something today?’” Lim said. “If they request in advance, I’ll pick up some burgers and cook for them.”
The classic burgers will be coming back to the lunch menu, which has only four food items now. Meanwhile, they may be the most exclusive secret burgers around.
“I got pretty frustrated during the pandemic when there was this focused dialogue of people who constantly wanted to pursue this artistic format,” he added. “And at the end of the day, I was like, ‘You can just cook.’ Let’s nourish people.
“Not to get too philosophical,” Lim said, voice breaking. “But it is perhaps existentially how I view what my place is.
“The aesthetics of what you wanted to do in the past may not be there for a while.”
Hermosa may not be what Lim wanted at this point, but it’s breathtakingly beautiful nonetheless. I can’t wait to see what his next moment may hold.
4356 W. Armitage Ave., Unit B (enter on Kostner Avenue)
312-588-6283 (text messages only)
Open: lunch and dinner, Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. (hours will vary); or by appointment for private dining
Prices: lunch $6 to $10, dinner $75 (takeout for two) to $695 (private dine-in for up to six guests)
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible, with one restroom on single level
Tribune rating: 2½ stars, between very good and excellent
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.