During Hidden Gems Week, the Observer food and drink writers are celebrating an abundance of diverse, delicious restaurants and bars around Dallas, places that don’t often (or ever) get mentioned by big-name food media, trendsetters, bloggers or chefs. We’re taking you outside of the ordinary to help you discover something new.
Downtown Irving — in the shadow of the Trinity Railway Express rail lines, with about two blocks of historic development fighting against the encroachment of suburban drive-thrus and auto shops — feels like a downtown core that time has forgotten. There’s not much happening here, and not many businesses that stay open after 5.
What a thrill it is, then, to find that downtown Irving is home to one of the two most exciting new Thai restaurants in North Texas.
Sapp Sapp Lao and Thai Kitchen, to give the new place its full name and both of its nationalities, comes from the same family that brought us Nalinh Market. (For those who don’t know Nalinh Market, it’s a Laotian grocery store just down Irving Boulevard with a few tables for dining in, tables that are usually very full.) Nalinh Market is a favorite haunt among Dallas chefs and fooderati, and Sapp Sapp, with equally welcoming hospitality and an eclectic menu that ventures far beyond the standards, is destined for the same cult status.
The new location is fully a restaurant, not a market, with a wide-open kitchen to reveal the work of the tiny staff. Owner Xay Senephoumy is likely to wait your table and lend a hand in the kitchen. Senephoumy — one of the friendliest owners we’ve encountered in a long time — happily leads customers through some of Sapp Sapp’s less conventional menu items, like “Xay-style” noodle soup (with crispy pork belly, quail eggs and cubes of pork blood) or the difference between Thai-style and Lao-style papaya salad.
On a first visit, we thought the more common Thai dishes were just fine, including pad woon sen, the glass noodle dish with shrimp and veggies ($8). Things get more interesting — and better — as you venture off the beaten path. Senephoumy is particularly proud of his loco moco, the Hawaiian protein-and-carb classic that stacks macaroni salad; a hamburger patty; thick, brown gravy and a fried egg on top of sticky rice. You can order it with one burger patty ($7) or make it a double for $2 extra. Right now, the patties are getting cooked past well-done, almost like a ground-beef steak, but Sapp Sapp is likely to resolve that issue. The macaroni salad and gravy, meanwhile, are curiously addicting.
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The best thing we ordered on our first visit — aside from the fried short ribs, crisp and coated with garlic ($6) — was kapoon, a gently spicy noodle soup ($8). Some customers who don’t know kapoon have been a little surprised by its soupiness or, rather, its total lack of soupiness. It’s more like a bowl of thin noodles, cabbage, bean sprouts, cilantro and hot chiles with a nice splash of red broth lurking near the bottom somewhere. The broth, with spices and fish sauce and a fine dice of pounded seafood, is wonderful and can be tossed to coat the noodles. Although the spices and techniques may be new to Dallas, the flavors are remarkably familiar and comforting. This is a great way to welcome cold weather.
There’s much more to try at Sapp Sapp: morsels of rice, meat and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves and steamed; glass noodle salad; larb with beef tripe or duck; boat noodles; something billed as “Lao-style ramen.” Senephoumy hints that he is testing a soup dumpling recipe, too. As long as it’s presented with the Senephoumy family’s charm, we’ll be willing to try just about anything — no matter where they open up shop.
Sapp Sapp Lao and Thai Kitchen, 120 S. Main St., Irving. 972-514-1811. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closed Monday.