Photo courtesy of Ethan Lim’s Instagram feed.
In a slow year I dine in restaurants or get delivery at least 200 times. In a good year, it may be 300 or 400 times. There have been single weeks where I have hit as many as 20 restaurants. When dining out like this, most small business owners are not allowed to take tax deductions at more than 50% of the bill. There is a loophole for people who write about and review food. We can generally deduct 100% of the cost of the meal, because it is the very essence of our business. And, every year, when I look at the staggering amount of money I’ve spent (or more likely a food publication’s budget) on eating, I am positive it will trigger an IRS audit. After all, the algorithm scanning my receipts has to question at some point whether there’s really a dude who has drunk that much Champagne and has also simultaneously eaten his weight in Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supremes.
While the number of times I dine out goes up or down in a year, and the budgets for dining out have gone decidedly and distinctly down, one thing has been constant: I only find myself truly blown away a handful of moments a year. This is to say that most restaurants, like most things in life, follow a bell curve. There are a few really awful places, a lot of really good places in the middle, and then a couple places that kill it.
The last place I can remember really killing it for me, at least in Chicago, is Hermosa (4356 W. Armitage), on Chicago’s west side. When a place serves the kind of deliciousness that Hermosa does, it’s usually on the radar of every food writer, food forum evangelist, and Instagram groupie. And yet, somehow, Hermosa had been open for years before writer Dennis Lee mentioned it on his Instagram feed, which is how I heard about it.
There are a lot of reasons for this. One of which is that Hermosa is basically a one man operation, helmed by a humble dude who didn’t like “resting on my laurels”, Ethan Lim. Lim worked the front of house at Alinea group’s Aviary and Next, and Boka group’s Balena, and could have cashed that experience in to bump the food magazines in to action, but as you’ll see below, he didn’t.
Instead, Lim, opened quietly, organically, and honed his craft without the preening masses to lift him up, or, as often happens with many small restaurants familiar with the Check Please!-effect, eat him up and spit him out.
Lim’s philosophy is very much in line with the places he’s worked at, which is to say if there’s a right way to do something, it’s the only way. If he’s going to use a Thai or Cambodian marinade for one of his sandwiches, he’s not going to throw in some ginger or chilis and call it Asian. He’s going to hunt down the right fish sauce, the perfect galangal, the right sambals, and he’s going to marinate the meat for as long as it takes. If something has to be smoky, he’s gonna actually put it in a smoker, not add liquid smoke.
The great conceit of Hermosa is that if you don’t look under the covers, you might just think it’s like every other corner café serving Vienna Beefs and pizza puffs. Then again, you might be tipped off that something is afoot by the restaurant’s logo which features a Homer Simpson-esque donut ideal as the “O” part of the logo, or maybe by the Bob Ross Chia Pet sitting on the counter.
And you’d be right. It turns out that pizza puff was actually made with an Italian Bolognese and not some canned marinara from the restaurant supply house. Look a little more and you’ll find a moo ping sandwich, which is an incredible approximation of the Thai garlic pork skewer topped with crunchy toasted rice. Lim’s family is Chinese, but hails from Cambodia, and he was born in a Thai refugee camp. He explores all of these cuisines and more between a bun. Last week as we spoke, Lim was getting ready to roll out a new slate of Cambodian-inspired treats. Enjoy the interview.
You said you were making lunch before I called. What’s for lunch?
Venison with a beef and barley soup blend. We hunted the venison.
I saw you have a bow on Instagram? Did you get the deer?
My boyfriend mainly bow hunts. I was there for moral support. I don’t have a hunting license yet.
Chefs often talk about how killing an animal impacts their relationship to the food they serve. How does it impact you?
It definitely gives me a better appreciation for food cycles. I think about things we can plant that will feed the deer which allows them to be a food source for us.
You fish too, right?
I do. It’s good therapy.
You ever serve any of that at Hermosa?
No, it’s mostly for self-consumption. Our spot is in Northern Wisconsin, so I don’t know if any of the walleye or perch or guppies would make it back before we were done eating them.
I saw that you have been spending some time on land in Wisconsin? Do you have a cabin?
No, it’s mostly open acreage [owned by my boyfriend and his family]. We are focusing on making sure the natural habitat is maintained. We try to keep the invasive stuff away. We usually drive up for the day and then drive back later. It’s a good place to get balance.
I read that you used to sell shoes and cars before you got into the restaurant industry. Tell me about that.
I worked at Marshall Fields as a buyer when it was still Marshall Fields. It was a little bubble. The clientele was very structured in what they liked to wear. It was very predictable. For the Midwestern market everyone wanted penny loafers, and Oxford lace ups. I then became a personal shopper at Macy’s in San Francisco. That was more varied. I got to tell the story of the whole package, look at different types of shoes, different pants, and understand the different personalities of my clients.
Then I came back to Chicago and sold Mini Coopers, when they were hot in 2003 in Naperville. It was a fun culture. We really dove into it and honored what had made the past version of the brand inform the future. When the Italian Job came out [which featured the Mini} we did a buyout of a movie theatre for our clients. It’s where I first learned to drive stick.
This makes sense to me that you transitioned to restaurants, because so much of sales is very much the essence of hospitality, which is anticipating what someone’s motivations and needs are so they can be met.
I think hospitality draws more personal emotions. When you’re selling clothes or cars, it’s a singular experience that has to lead, from a professional standpoint, to a transaction. In hospitality, you can be with a handful of tables and people. Your guard is down a lot more.
Right, in a restaurant, in some ways the client has already committed to the transaction by walking in, vs at a car dealership where they are just as likely to walk out without buying anything.
You went to culinary school at Kendall, but ended up working front of house in restaurants. Why not work in the kitchen?
I was doing a lot of things. I was selling cars, going to school and working at restaurants. My GM [at BMW] was very supportive of my passions. I worked in the kitchen at Sage Grill in Highwood, and at Spring with Shawn McClain. Talk about coming full circle, that was right before Shawn got the Beard, the same year that Alinea had their Christmas party at Spring.
As for going front of House at Aviary and Next, I think I made the decision early on I that I wanted to own a restaurant, and I knew I needed to know the entire business before I did that. My philosophy was I wanted to learn the nuances of a dining room from the best at the moment.
You worked with Chris Gerber, the GM of Aviary then, right? What did you learn from Chris?
He really allowed me to nurture my intuitions, to develop a 360 visual of everything that’s going on around you. There’s a 12-step process of what needs to be happening in that space. You might have a six top in one section and six two tops in another and you constantly have to be balancing what all those people need at the same time.
Now at Hermosa I have eight counter stools and it’s a one man show. The Aviary experience taught me how to process what I do now. For example, I’m preparing everything from scratch, so I have to know all the steps with some foresight to minimize all the unnecessary things that could get in the way. When an order is executed, I know I can start the fries or the burger and then go make a milkshake which takes just long enough, that when I’m done, I’m ready to flip the burger or pull the fries. There’s an internal clock that I’ve developed managing multiple tasks at restaurants over the years.
Your family has been in the restaurant industry forever and you grew up around it. You often hear how second-generation kids are warned away from or know how hard it is, so they stay away. Was that ever a consideration with you?
I always had a drive to tell a story through food. I don’t think it’s hard as long as you go in it with your eyes open, knowing how much work it takes to open and function. I think the problem is so many people dive into it with not understanding the emotional weight of what they’re undertaking. I had the privilege to be in the restaurant environment early in life and I’ve seen the absolute best work at their craft.
You are a one-man operation, which is why I’m more appreciative that you don’t take more shortcuts. It seems like if there’s a best way to do something, that’s what you do.
I try to value how self-sufficient we can be as humans. Also, I don’t want to dilute the story of a culture. I want people fascinated with the idea that you don’t have to buy curry from a can or a jar of mayo, but that you can actually make it yourself, and it’s often better.
One of the things I think is interesting is how you started the restaurant and it looked like your typical Chicago corner joint, but you were making pizza puffs with Bolognese sauce.
It’s important to find a vernacular or a common tongue on something we all recognize, even if we see it differently. Like even with the sandwiches, I might call it Korean steak sandwich instead of bulgogi and really break it down to the core of what it is, so it’s more approachable.
Hermosa is a working class, Latinx-skewing community. Did you find some of the regulars who came in for Vienna hot dogs liked the quality of your food so much that they were willing to order something they hadn’t tried before?
My family has had a restaurant here since 1986, so we’re familiar to the neighborhood. They’re more willing to try stuff because they trust us. I think one of the first dishes that opened up the conversation was the Bolognese puff. I also did a tongue in cheek “green eggs and ham” with braised pork belly, scrambled egg, fermented green hot sauce, and cheddar cheese that people liked.
You operated below the radar for a while. I feel like you could have emailed a bunch of food writers and said, hey, I worked at Next and Aviary and I’m opening my own spot, but you didn’t do that.
I thought about it, but I feel strongly about not resting on my laurels. When people hear I worked at the Aviary or The Office, they’re culinary-focused, but that was not my training there I didn’t want to send a false narrative.
Now it seems like you’re getting a lot of attention from the hardcore foodies. Dennis wrote about you in Chicago magazine. Do you want to expand or hire more people, or is this the scale you like?
I don’t have as much free time or the flexibility I used to, but my personal drive to be as self-sufficient – this is my one shot. I like the eight seats. That’s the goal.
I see you’re expanding the Cambodian menu next week. Is that the future of the restaurant, or will it always be a balance of the new stuff and old stuff?
I can only do so much, so when I add things, something has to come off the menu. I had a poll amongst family and friends whether I should remove the buffalo chicken sandwich or the chicken parm. They were evenly split and divided, so I took them both off to make room for the new dishes.
One of the things I’ve read that I really like is how you’ve said that for so long we [Cambodians] like these dishes, so why don’t we trust our own palates and serve this stuff in public?
It’s true. We have to tell that story. It makes sense. There are so many unique things, the way we make congee and noodles, and steamed eggs like a chawanmushi, that are distinct and worth telling.
How did you choose the name of the restaurant? I assume it’s because it mirrors the name of the Chicago neighborhood you’re located in, but is it also because hermosa means “beautiful” in Spanish?
You nailed it. The restaurant is a tribute back to the neighborhood steeped in my personal philosophy to make everything as beautiful and nice as possible, so you have something to enjoy.