Few restaurants cultivate such an intimate connection between the food on the plate and the broader context in which it is served. Go ahead, take a bite of Khao’s Laotian noodles and snacks — and pair that bite with a side of Dallas cultural history.
Look outside Khao Noodle Shop’s windows to the neighborhood around it. These streets are where thousands of Laotian and Vietnamese refugees settled in the 1970s, accepting the United States’ offer of a new home, an offer meant as apology for American aircraft napalming the refugees’ past lives. Southeast Asian immigrants displaced by war filled East Dallas for a time, and although many have since moved over to Garland, edible links to that heritage remain, including Vietnam Restaurant and the pho at classic Lakewood dive Cosmo’s.
As the shrimp bursts with juices, which streak down your chin, and as the full sour-spicy range of flavor blazes across your tongue, think about how little even self-proclaimed “foodies” in Dallas know their own city.
After you’ve taken in the neighborhood, consider Khao’s menu. It’s short — about five bowls of noodles and six or seven snack bites — and its small portions and modest prices are meant for binge-ordering. One person can easily eat two noodle bowls and a couple of sides. A party of four should simply ask for everything.
The first plate to arrive might be “shrimp bites,” three small, crisp cubes of cured and minced shrimp meat served hot on perilla leaves ($8). Wrap a leaf around a shrimp cake, dunk it in the vinegary sauce and take a bite. As the shrimp bursts with juices, which streak down your chin, and as the full sour-spicy range of flavor blazes across your tongue, think about how little even self-proclaimed “foodies” in Dallas know their own city. North Texas is the best place in North America to eat Laotian food, but we don’t celebrate that fact at all. Indeed, non-Lao food writers only really noticed about a year ago.
They’ll definitely notice now. But that’s because, even in this market, Khao Noodle Shop is serving cuisine other Laotian restaurants simply can’t match. Every rice noodle here is made in-house. Grains, vegetables and meats are curing or pickling in various experimental tubs and baskets. Also made from scratch are the sakoo ($6), dumplings made by forming a dough from tapioca pearls. The technique behind sakoo is so tricky that there’s simply nowhere else in Dallas to eat them, unless you are lucky enough to catch a vendor at a holiday celebration.
At Khao, these perfectly round, translucent dumplings are noteworthy for the tapioca dough’s soft texture — think, maybe, of bubble gum — and for the ground peanuts and tiny slivers of red chile pepper, which leave a thrilling aftertaste long after you’ve enjoyed the pliable chew.
As you tuck into a bite of khao gee, an egg omelet sliced and rolled around the surprising crunch of puffed and crisped rice ($5), ponder the revolution that has overtaken the Dallas dining scene in recent years. Immigrant and second-generation chefs are blurring boundaries and letting their creativity take wing, using tradition as a mere starting point. You’ll think of Regino Rojas, Anastacia Quiñones, Peja Krstic, Bruno Davaillon and Teiichi Sakurai. Khao Noodle Shop is very much part of that band of revolutionaries, and like them, it is reframing the picture of Dallas’ culinary strengths. This isn’t a meat-and-potatoes town anymore.
Now the noodle bowls (all $5) are arriving. Sukiyaki comes first: A Laotian home-cooking staple that bears no resemblance to the Japanese dish of the same name, this sukiyaki is a bowl of glass noodles topped with black sesame seeds, crowned with a runny quail egg and bathed in coconut cream.
The noodle bowls, petite and plated with the visual flair of a dish three times the price, line up on your table like a tiny parade of Lao flavor. There’s mee katee, a study in yellows colored by curry spice and flavored by lemongrass. Khao soi, with a vivid red broth, boasts beech mushrooms, ground pork and fermented soybeans, and it tastes uncannily like the rice noodle version of a deeply flavored Italian ragu. (Not many Italian grandmothers garnish their spaghetti with lotus root chips.)
Khao poon, the classic, comforting Laotian rendition of chicken noodle soup, is showered with frizzles of purple cabbage. Khao’s signature boat noodles come with sliced brisket, house-made meatballs and instructions from the server: Dip your spoon into the broth first, and taste the broth by itself. It’s thick and intensely savory; you might compare it to an ultra-concentrated pho broth, but with a sour note sounding in the background. That would be the pork blood.
As you stack your empty noodle bowls on top of each other, you start thinking about taking out-of-town guests to Khao Noodle Shop. The next time your old friends visit you for a weekend and ask for a “real Dallas experience,” you’ll introduce them to the octopus and frog leg tacos at Revolver Taco Lounge, drag them out for a night of Korean fried chicken and karaoke, force them to try head cheese at Petra and the Beast and feast on foraged and fermented veggies at Izkina. You’ll bring them to Khao Noodle Shop and order the shrimp bites, sakoo and noodles.
And if your friends ask if khao gee, lemongrass curries and boat noodles with pig’s blood broth are truly a local experience, you’ll know how to answer them. A culinary revolution is underway in our city. Khao Noodle Shop is the new Dallas at its best.
Khao Noodle Shop, 4812 Bryan St. #101. 972-803-3373, khaonoodleshop.com. Open Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.; Saturday noon-10 p.m., Sunday noon-6 p.m., closed Monday