What’s comforting to you? Getting an aging parent a second dose of vaccine is pretty damn comforting these days, so I suppose it can change with the times.
But generally, comfort food is tied to what you grew up with or a dish that reminds you of a feeling of belonging or of being restored. In America, the genre has been stereotyped to Stuff White Midwesterners Eat at the Holidays, but it’s easy to see that gumbo or ropa vieja or carbonara all fit somebody’s definition.
“People are looking for comfort food, both because of the pandemic and now because of the weather,” chef Donny Sirisavath (pronounced just like it’s spelled; I swear) tells me. But his evanescent noodles didn’t travel well. Where have we heard that before?
So, Chef Donny closed his celebrated Khao Noodle Shop for three weeks to install the new menu and has reopened as takeout only until the weather warms up enough to dine at the precious few outdoor seats. The logo is just Khao Dallas.
We got the gang phet red curry, and here’s where Chef Donny should maybe massage his messaging. This is not going to read as “comfort food” to most Dallasites.
It is going to read as delicious: pickled peppercorns, pungent fish sauce and tender beef shank sliced ever so thin. “People have a misconception of what curry is,” Chef Donny tells me when I say I couldn’t taste the curry (as in the typical Thai spice combination). “Curry is the spices we use for these dishes — kaffir and galangal.”
It’s the funkiest thing I’ve eaten in 2021.
But it’s also not something someone’s Lao grandmother made by cooking it all day in a pot. The vegetables were al dente. The long beans still had some squeak in them. I always like Thai eggplant better than the mushy disaster of the globe variety, and these were almost crunchy. The jasmine rice is easily the best I’ve ever had.
The mok rice cake is Chef Donny’s evolution of eating mok (steamed meats) with sticky rice. Why not put it all in a cake? It’s like a highbrow version of a State Fair entry with none of the self-hate when you eat it.
The spring rolls are definitely stretching the definition of comfort food even for Lao people, but they’re the most fun thing I’ve eaten in 2021. Chef Donny turns the vermicelli noodles into the wrapper and adds crisp green apple.
What he and his team are doing here is taking Lao comfort food and applying sophisticated techniques and creativity in ingredients and preparation. At the price point, I’m not sure you’re getting more cooking skill than this anywhere else. My editor quit, so I’d call it elevated.
Khao won’t let you stand inside no matter how cold it is, so order online with their excellent interface. Chef Donny built it on Square’s platform, and it’s easy to use with a handy pickup time feature.
For delivery, Square partners with Postmates, but you can also use Favor, which Chef Donny says is more affordable for both the restaurant and the customer. He also likes that it’s owned by H-E-B so he’s supporting a Texas business.
Chef Donny didn’t just come up with this menu for COVID. This is a concept he anticipated launching perhaps five years from now once he had the craziness of Khao Noodle Shop, named one of America's best new restaurants by Bon Appetit in 2019, more under control. The pandemic accelerated his plans.
For those of you missing the noodles, the plan is to reopen the original concept as soon as inside dining is safe.
How would you feel if you opened a tiny, new restaurant concept that was instantly vaulted into the culinary stratosphere only to have your entire industry yanked out from under you? Chef Donny may be one of the few people who know. What was Bon Appetit’s best new restaurant of 1917?
Khao Dallas, 4812 Bryan St., No. 101, 972-803-3373, Khaonoodleshop.com. Open for takeout and delivery only, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.
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