For Mona Sang, cooking Khmer food is both a balm and a celebration. The chef, who most recently worked at Lettuce Entertain You’s Ivy Room, did what so many others did when furloughed during the pandemic — she returned to her roots. Sang opened Mona Bella Catering with her mother, Sarom Sieng, who had a restaurant in Cambodia before being forced to leave during the genocide. Mother and daughter made chicken curry and egg rolls, cooking not just to get through the pandemic but to honor their heritage. In July, they took another leap, opening Khmai Cambodian Fine Dining.

Chicago’s Cambodian food scene is not deep (there’s just Hermosa Restaurant besides), and Khmai is a worthy spot to acquaint yourself with the cuisine’s herbaceous, sweet, and sour flavors. Sang changes the menu weekly, but sach ko ang (steak skewers) is a staple. Made by marinating chunks of rib eye with lemongrass, red chiles, and the spice paste kroeung, the tender chunks have a salty, smoky flavor with sweet and sour notes. The lort cha, another regular item, features slightly chewy rice pin noodles stir-fried with fish and soy sauces. Minced vegetables, chopped peanuts, and fried garlic add texture, and chile paste and a fried egg top it all off. Sang is also tossing wings in spicy tamarind sauce and stuffing beef sausages with galangal and lime leaf. The dishes are exciting but comforting, exactly the kind of thing you want to remind you of home.