We often talk about a city’s food culture as if it is an unchanging thing, a fact of life. Austin loves breakfast tacos. Dallas wants steak. But culture is constantly changing, and history is always being written. A city’s eating habits evolve as surely as its restaurants open and close and residents move in and out.
Khao Noodle Shop, which announced its closure on Feb. 9, 2022, was a turning point in the history of Dallas food culture. It helped educate diners about one of Dallas’ most important immigrant communities, opened doors for a new generation of chefs, brought national acclaim to our neighborhood restaurants, and enabled the city to embrace a heritage many people didn’t know we had.
There’s a future ahead for Khao and chef-owner Donny Sirisavath, whose next move will be to open an Asian fried chicken restaurant in its place, called Darkoo’s Chicken Shack. But even if this is the end of those extraordinary bowls of boat noodles, the restaurant’s past has already had a profound effect on Dallas dining.
Khao opened in 2018 as the city’s diners were finally learning what one local community had long known: that our Laotian 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 of, surprisingly, Sacramento). But our non-Asian diners were only just taking notice.
“Khao Noodle Shop was so special because in that dining experience we were able to educate customers,” Sirisavath told D Magazine’s Rosin Saez. Before his restaurant opened, I remember talking to other Lao-American cooks at 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 every Dallasite to know and crave nam khao and larb in the same way that we love pho and chilaquiles.
Khao Noodle Shop put a fresh, new-generation face on that movement, and helped bring it national attention. When Bon Appetit featured the restaurant in 2019, its 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 Cambodian food court stall Apsara in Grand Prairie, commented, “If Lao food can be popular, why can’t Cambodia’s food?”
With one chopstick, Khao Noodle Shop pointed into the future. But with the other, it pointed back to Dallas’ past. The restaurant was sited in an East Dallas neighborhood where many Southeast Asian refugees had settled in the 1970s. Vietnam Restaurant, at Bryan and Peak, is another sign of that history.
As Asian immigrant groups grew stronger and more prominent in suburbs like Garland, Carrollton and Arlington, memories of that East Dallas community could have faded. Khao kept its legacy alive, and Darkoo’s 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 well wonder if Khao’s closure bodes ill for Dallas food culture. But it’s hard to tease apart the multiple factors that played into this decision: a raging pandemic that keeps producing contagious new variants, declining sales figures, a tiny dining room and weather-dependent patio, and recipes that call for extraordinary labor and skill.
Anyway, the mark has already been made. Dallas is not going back. Our culture has changed.
When I look around at some of Dallas’ best restaurants today, I see themes that overlap with the themes of Khao’s menu. Sirisavath told Bon Appetit, “Even though I was born in Texas, I always felt more like a refugee.” That double heritage was reflected in Khao’s menu, which featured a native Texan chef trying to find himself in his family’s immigrant’s roots.
It was always his mother’s food — but it was also always his.
The attempt to reconcile old homelands to new ones is the inspiration behind some of the most inventive, most interesting food in Dallas now. We also get to enjoy a dialogue between respect for tradition and ambition to create something fresh. Dallas is a magnet for newcomers from across the country and the globe, all trying to keep their heritages alive while joining a new one.
That’s true of Khao, but also other restaurants like Revolver Taco Lounge, where Regino Rojas insists that fine dining is rooted in tradition and refuses to be called “chef”; Modest Rogers, where owner Modesto Rodriguez knows he can’t go home again; and Ka-Tip Thai, which refuses to stop at the usual Thai carryout staples.
Sometimes I wonder if all Dallas’ best restaurants can be found in that borderland 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 a majority of its diners on most of the things they ordered. Looking back at Khao’s legacy, courage is the trait that stands out most. This was not just a personal, heartfelt restaurant, but a brave one.
A few more brave new Dallas restaurants open every year. The next wave of them will owe something to a Lao noodle spot that, through its example and its excellence, helped make them possible.