We often talk about a city’s food culture as if it were an unchanging thing, a fact of life. Austin loves tacos for breakfast. Dallas wants steak. But culture is constantly changing and history is always being written. A city’s eating habits change as surely as its restaurants open and close and residents move in and out.
Khao Noodle Shop, which announced its closure on February 9, 2022, marked a turning point in the history of Dallas food culture. It has helped educate diners about one of Dallas’ most important immigrant communities, opened the doors to a new generation of chefs, brought national fame to our neighborhood restaurants, and empowered the city to embracing a legacy that many people didn’t know we had.
There’s a future ahead of him for Khao and chef-owner Donny Sirisavath, whose next step will be to open an Asian fried chicken restaurant in his place, called Darkoo’s Chicken Shack. But even if that’s the end of those extraordinary bowls of boat noodles, the restaurant’s past has already had a profound effect on Dallas cuisine.
Khao opened its doors in 2018 as city diners finally learned what a local community had long known: that our Lao food scene is one of the most exciting in the country. At the time, Dallas-Fort Worth already had more Lao restaurants than any other metropolitan area (just ahead, surprisingly, of Sacramento). But our non-Asian guests were just noticing.
“Khao Noodle Shop was so special because in this dining experience we were able to educate customers,” Sirisavath Recount Magazine Dis Rosin Saez. Before his restaurant opened, I remember talking to other Lao American cooks from other businesses, including Sabaidee and Zaap Kitchen. Their message was unanimous: they wanted Lao food in every neighborhood. The more competitors, the better. They wanted everyone in Dallas to know and crave nam khao and larb the same way we love pho and chilaquiles.
Khao Noodle Shop has given a new, next-gen face to this movement and helped bring it national attention. When enjoy your food presented the restaurant in 2019, its the spotlight also shone on other Asian American restaurateurs around Dallas. For a wave of owners, Sirisavath was something of a role model. Joseph Be, the owner of the Apsara Cambodian food stand in Grand Prairie, commented“If Lao food can be popular, why shouldn’t Cambodian food be?”
With just one wand, Khao Noodle Shop points to the future. But with the other, it was reminiscent of Dallas’ past. The restaurant was located in a neighborhood in East Dallas where many Southeast Asian refugees had settled in the 1970s. Vietnam Restaurant, in Bryan and Peak, is another sign of this history.
As Asian immigrant groups grew stronger and more prominent in suburbs like Garland, Carrollton, and Arlington, memories of this east Dallas community might have faded. Khao has kept his legacy alive, and Darkoo will continue to do so. And that wasn’t Khao’s only homage to the past. It was always, from day one, a tribute to Sirisavath’s mother, who raised him in the kitchen of her Chinese and Thai restaurants in San Antonio.
Some readers might wonder if Khao’s closure bodes ill for Dallas’ food culture. But it’s hard to single out the multiple factors that played into this decision: a raging pandemic that continues to produce contagious new variants, dwindling sales numbers, a small dining room and patio dependent on weather conditions, and recipes that require extraordinary work and skill.
Either way, the mark has already been made. Dallas will not return. Our culture has changed.
When I look around some of the best restaurants in Dallas today, I see overlapping themes with Khao’s menu themes. Sirisavath said enjoy your food, “Even though I was born in Texas, I always felt more like a refugee.” This dual heritage was reflected in Khao’s menu, which featured a native Texan chef trying to relate to his family’s immigrant roots.
It was still his mother’s food, but it was also still his.
The attempt to reconcile the old homelands with the new is the inspiration behind some of the most inventive and interesting dishes in Dallas today. We also benefit from a dialogue between respect for tradition and the ambition to create something new. Dallas is a magnet for newcomers from across the country and around the world, all trying to keep their heritage alive while joining a new one.
This is the case of Khao, but also of other restaurants like Revolver Taco Lounge, where Regino Rojas insists on the fact that gastronomy is rooted in tradition and refuses to be called “chef”; Modest Rogers, whose owner Modesto Rodriguez knows he can’t go home anymore; and Ka-Tip Thai, which refuses to stop at the usual Thai staples.
Sometimes I wonder if all the best restaurants in Dallas are in this border region where cultures collide.
Khao Noodle Shop had to walk a fine line, serving labor-intensive food at a remarkably low price in a casual setting and educating the majority of its diners on most things they ordered. Looking at Khao’s legacy, Courage is the trait that stands out the most. It was not only a personal and sincere restaurant, but a courageous restaurant.
A few braver new Dallas restaurants are opening every year. The next wave of them will owe something to a Lao noodle spot that, through its example and excellence, helped make them possible.