At the tiny Khao Niao, Thai and Vietnamese classics are made with care
Grow Omaha Eats
Whenever a friend says something along the lines of “have you tried the Thai place on 155th and Ruggles?” a little light flips on in my head.
After two recent visits to that west Omaha hole-in-the-wall — which turns out to be called Khao Niao Thai-Lao Restaurant — I’m glad I have such friends.
This little joint needs to be on your radar, too. We found it full of colorful plates of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine clearly made with thought and care.
We started our first visit with a couple of appetizers: pork spring rolls and the restaurant’s version of crab rangoon, called “fruit rangoon.”
Spring rolls are fairly simple, and, I think, a good way to gauge freshness. These checked all the boxes: warm sliced pork paired with crispy, fresh lettuce, carrots and cucumber, along with plenty of cilantro.
The fruit rangoons come with a pineapple or a mango filling, and we tried both. Diced fine bits of pineapple studded the white cream cheese filling on one set, and mango tinted the filling bright yellow on the other. The fruit is subtle, but there, and I can appreciate the creativity at work here.
We learned that the restaurant makes all its sauces in house, including the thick, savory peanut sauce that comes with the spring rolls, and the thinner, sweet red sauce with the rangoons. Diners get a choice of either, and both are much better than the commercial bottled varieties you’ll get elsewhere.
I’d understood that the noodles are homemade at Khao Niao, too, so I went for one of my favorites: Pad Kee Mao, or drunken noodles. The noodles here are almost like Italian handkerchief pasta: big sheets of broad rice noodles that tumble through the sauce and delicately fold over each other on the plate. They are so good I ate much more than I planned on, that’s for sure.
I ordered my dish with tofu — diners choose from the usual protein lineup of pork, beef, chicken, shrimp or tofu — and the pleasing squares of tofu here are extra crispy and browned. The rest of the dish is stacked with crisp carrots, scrambled egg and fresh herbs.
I ordered my dish “medium,” but the same staff member who told us about the homemade sauces also told me, when she dropped it at the table, that she had actually made it mild and added a small bowl of red pepper if I desired more heat. We learned why just moments later, when Matthew scooped into his bowl of panang curry and described the medium spice level as “serious.” In short, if you like spicy food, you’re going to like Khao Niao. (I’ll say I was thankful the kitchen made the call it did in my case.)
The panang curry was our other favorite of the two visits: creamy and rich, with plenty of that aforementioned heat, the sauce is scented with coconut milk, zingy spices and the unmistakable flavor of makrut lime. It comes with thick chunks of both red and green pepper and a hearty amount of chicken, though some pieces of our chicken were a bit on the small side with a tougher texture.
Khao Niao isn’t much to look at. The dining room is rather plain, and during my visits, we only saw one other couple eating at another table, of which there are only a handful.
But the takeout business is brisk, and the restaurant’s phone rings off the hook. Staff and, presumably, the owners, run a busy kitchen and personally run brown bags of takeout containers out to cars waiting in the parking lot, often lined up several deep. You can hear tools hitting the wok continuously as you dine at your table.
I was a bit bummed when the owners didn’t return my phone call before this review ran, because I think there’s surely a good story behind Khao Niao. The food tells me that much.
I knew I wanted to dip my toe into the Vietnamese side of the menu on the second visit, and to that end, ordered a big bowl of combination pho, with rare beef, meatballs and brisket.
I wasn’t sad to tuck into the bowl on the first cooler late summer day we’ve had, and I know I’ll be back for a bowl in the cold depths of January.
The broth is key in any bowl of pho, and this one is light and fragrant, with a subtle hint of clove. Years ago, a woman I interviewed taught me not to dump the hoisin and hot sauces straight into the broth, but rather to put some on a side plate and dip the meats there, so as not to ruin the hard work that goes into that broth. I did that here, and savored each bite, particularly of the beef brisket, which is absolutely wonderful.
Large chunks of tender brisket rested at the bottom of my bowl, so I didn’t get to them until after I’d tried several bites of rare beef (tender and flavorful) and meatballs (small, just a touch chewy.) The brisket steals the show, and would raise the eyebrows of most barbecue lovers, I imagine, with its juicy finish and deep roasted flavor.
The noodles here are al dente and thin, and sides of fresh basil, sprouts and green jalapenos add another layer of flavor, if the diner chooses to add them. I’m not sure if the hoisin is homemade or not, but either way, it’s delicious.
We couldn’t leave Khao Niao without trying what must be Omaha’s favorite Thai dish, pad Thai. It’s different from the version we’ve become used to, with thicker noodles swathed in a slightly sticky sauce that’s balanced with sour, sweet and hot flavors.
Plenty of chunks of beef and swirls of scrambled egg tangle into the noodles, and it’s topped with big pieces of scallion and a small side bowl of crushed peanuts. It’s one I’ll put on my takeout list for future orders, to be sure.
During the pandemic, Thai takeout became one of the standards of our weekly diet at the Baker-Hansen house. It’s fun to be back out in the world now, discovering new holes in the wall and having the chance to share them here.
Anyhow. Don’t sleep on Khao Niao. It’s a good one.
Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m to 9 p.m.