The first thing you notice about Khâluna is its beauty. The colors are soft and beachy, with accents of gold and greenery that make a Minneapolis fall evening radiate warmth. No matter where you look there’s something to ogle, like the massive wooden lamps, the delicate curves of the ivory banquettes, or the kaleidoscopic plate of rainbow rice at the next table over. You’d be forgiven for thinking Khâluna is merely pretty. But the moment the food comes — again, almost too lovely to disturb — you realize the feast for the eyes is just the appetizer. Everything tastes stunning, too.
This marriage of style and flavor reveals a confidence that could only come from a chef who, with two other successful restaurants under her belt, has come into her own. With Khâluna, chef-owner Ann Ahmed is cooking precise and imaginative Laotian cuisine, exploring tradition without limiting herself to it. She subs in peanuts, pistachios, and mushrooms for the more typical pork in her sakoo, creating luxurious, umami-laden texture in the traditional street food, topping it off with edible flowers and zinging flakes of Thai red chili. Cocktails come spritzed with macadamia oil that’s perfume-like in its fragrance. And nearly every table has an order of bucatini talay, a tangle of pasta with shrimp, scallops, squid, and a rich “tom yum ragout” of breadcrumbs, tomato, and fish sauce. The dish is inventive and yet also comforting, affirming Khâluna’s forward-thinking attitude. And yes, it is beautiful. — Jaya Saxena
Photography by Caroline Yang
4000 Lyndale Avenue S
Buoyed by trays of her mother’s egg rolls, industry vet Mona Sang opened Khmai Fine Dining this summer. Making egg rolls for her church community sustained Sang’s mother, Sarom Sieng, while raising her children on Chicago’s North Side, having arrived in the early ’80s after fleeing the Khmer Rouge. Filled with ground chicken and taro, the crispy egg rolls are fulfilling, and, in the unassuming Rogers Park dining room, ubiquitous: Orders fly out of the kitchen all night. As a starter, Mai’s — Mom’s — egg rolls are only the beginning of what Sang has to share when it comes to Cambodian cooking.
When a server warns that kapi — a fermented shrimp paste nestled into a basket stuffed with rice and vegetables, also known as kapeek pow — is “really spicy and pungent,” claiming the restaurant doesn’t do refunds, Sang must know no one’s sending it back. The dip glows with deliciously complex notes of galangal and sweet shrimp. From there, expertly rendered Khmer dishes like somlor machu kreoung (short ribs in a sour broth); prahok ktiss, the minced-pork spread laced with coconut milk and fish paste; and a parade of shredded salads and noodle dishes thrill the room. The restaurant cements Sang’s command of the Chicago dining scene, building on the success of the catering company she launched during the pandemic, out of the same church where her mother made those egg rolls. Khmai offers a thorough and passionate representation of Cambodian cuisine not just to Chicago, but to the country — each of which is lucky to have Sang, Sieng, and Khmai. — Rachel P. Kreiter
Khmai Fine Dining
Photography by Melissa Blackmon
Khmai Fine Dining
2043 W. Howard Street
Khâluna’s dreamy aesthetic extends to its next-door shop. Browse deftly curated wares from Ann Ahmed’s travels throughout Southeast Asia like teak strainer spoons and indigo-dyed textiles, as well as ceramics from local potters. She also teaches cooking classes at the shop, so you can bring a bit of knowledge home, too. — Justine Jones
The Tipping Point