Family, community, and the inherent romanticism of the mom and pop shop – Khao House is, and always has been, a love letter to the things Randy Khounnoraj and Korene McCaig hold dear.
When Randy Khounnoraj, chef/owner of Khao House, first stepped foot in a professional kitchen he was 22 and just looking for a part-time job to put himself through school.
Randy: “I was a terrible cook. I thought I was gonna be a server, but they put me in the kitchen. Ever since then, I’ve enjoyed cooking. I liked the physical aspect of being on the line, the camaraderie, the finished product of the food — it was really satisfying.”
At 24, Randy applied to the culinary program at Red River College. He considers this a late start.
Randy: “If you ever read chef bios, they’ve been cooking since they were 10 years old. They’ve been cooking with their grandmas, making pasta – I never had that. My mom was a refugee, she used to cook for us just to survive, so we didn’t have those kinds of memories.”
Despite the comparatively late start, Randy’s built up his cooking and leadership skills working in various restaurants across the city, including Bonfire Bistro. Here, he met Korene.
Korene: “We met there, but we didn’t start dating until later…He left Bonfire, and he said ‘I just need to open my own place.’ And I said, why don’t we do it together.”
With his own menu, Randy borrows a lot of flavours from his mother’s home country of Laos. For both him and Korene, this is the ultimate comfort food.
Korene: “My second birthday after meeting Randy, my 30th birthday, we had a gathering at my friends house and we had Laos food. So we had naem khao salad and sticky rice and everything. This is the food that I love, and I want to share it with everybody.”
Though it serves up some familiar flavours, the Khao menu is completely unique.
Randy: “Every dish was a reference point to our lives: my life, my life with Korene, making instant noodles after a night of drinking, being a university student just trying to throw things together.”
Even the name, Khao House, is significant. Khao means ‘rice’ in Lao.
Randy: “In Asian culture, everything revolves around rice…If I don't eat rice for more than two or three days, I feel kind of weird. So it kind of hits home. And we were in a house, so: Khao House.”
Khao House wasn’t always nestled in The Good Will. Originally, the restaurant was set up at 126 Sherbrook Avenue — you know, that cute little house with the porch, currently home to Roughage Eatery.
Korene: “When we found it, we were both so excited. And it happened so quickly. We just jumped right into it, and then we were in it, wholeheartedly. Our whole lives revolved around it.”
Randy: “I never wanted anything with a huge staff where I didn’t know anyone. Korene and I, we’ve always wanted a mom and pop place: living upstairs and having a restaurant downstairs.”
126 Sherbrook checked all the boxes. Randy’s vision of a dream restaurant has never included a dimly-lit Michelin-Star establishment with fat price tags. Instead, he admires a much more wholesome business model.
Randy: “You know, if you go to a small Asian restaurant, there’s always a husband and wife.”
Work couldn’t have been closer to home, and the couple was thrilled. And then, six months after they opened their doors, they found out they were expecting their first child together. In fact, Korene broke the news in their favourite room in the house: the kitchen, of course.
Korene: “I worked right up until I went into labour.”
It was December, and Khao was set to cater a Christmas party. Labour was moving pretty slowly, so Korene urged Randy to go and work, assuring him everything would work out and she’d call if she needed him.
Moments after Randy served the food, Korene called.
Korene: “I was like ‘don’t rush here, but it’s happening’...I didn’t want him to freak out and crash his car or something!”
Of course, Randy was there in a heartbeat. He made it in time, and as Korene had promised: everything worked out.
However, with a new born at home, the two found out that living where you work isn’t ideal.
Randy: “[Frankie’s] bedroom was above the dining room and it was too loud. He couldn’t sleep at night.”
With a growing family and Khao House fan base, it was time to move to a bigger space.
Enter: The Good Will.
Khao House joined us in 2019. Randy always wanted a restaurant with a “hidden gem” feel to it, and that vibe wasn’t lost here at the bar. Randy likes to imagine traveling bands eating at Khao House before their shows, pleasantly surprised by bold flavours from an unsung city most tours forget.
Our shared values drew Randy in, too.
Randy: “The Good Will, on the outside, looks like a big business, but really it’s just owned by a bunch of friends. And they’re very community-based. Very small and in the neighbourhood, and that’s what we wanted Khao to be.”
Naturally, when Khao set up shop at The Good Will, the menu evolved to satisfy the fried food cravings that come calling after a few beers.
French fries á la Khao House include kewpie mayo, green onions, and nori. Chicken fingers, make way for cauliflower bites — panko crusted and served with spicy garlic mayo or sweet chili sauce.
Korene’s excited to cater music festivals this summer, too—including Real Love Summer Fest and Tiny Fest. This is an environment Khao thrives in.
Korene: “Really good music. Really awesome, lovely people.”
Yep, we’re pretty stoked to have the Khao House crew here. The whole crew is good people, and Randy and Korene agree.
Randy: “I think my greatest accomplishment is the people who have worked for us and how far they’ve come in their cooking careers. I’ve seen people grow and come out of their shells and develop their skills. And that had something to do with us.”
Korene: “The work environment just isn’t like any other kitchen. We’re family, and we work together and we treat each other with respect. And that does exist in some other kitchens but a lot of kitchens unfortunately don’t have that.”
Randy notes that while he runs the kitchen behind the scenes, Korene is the one customers ask for by name.
Korene: “I love to host, and I love to make people happy. I love team work. I’ve experienced working in a place where they say, ‘you’re on your own.’ And I didn’t like that. That’s not how I think things should be ran. We’re all going to help each other out, and we’re all going to feel supported.”
The Khao story has always been driven by the desire to nourish the community. As humble as these two are, Randy and Korene know their love for the community is a love returned in full.
Randy: “When we closed the house, people were actually heartbroken. It’s just a restaurant, a monetary transaction, but a lot of people were really upset. You never think you’ll get that emotional response from people.”
Korene: “When we came back to do takeout, we were so shocked by the support. Somebody came and picked up food, and I didn’t recognize her with a mask on, but she left me a big tip. I was like, 'woah, woah, woah, you left me too much money!' And she said, ‘no, no, no—that’s for you. Thank you for being open.’ I almost cried.”
If love is two people looking not at each other but at a third thing, for Korene and Randy, that thing is a table full of good food and good people.
Come eat, drink, and feel the love.
Monday-Thursday: 5PM – 10PM
Friday & Saturday: 5PM – LATE
Sunday: CLOSED - for now :)
Can you keep a secret?
The Khao House Fried Chicken Mac ‘n’ Cheese — if you ask very nicely, the Khao crew is happy to serve up this decadent secret menu item.
The dish includes ramen noodles tossed with two types of melty cheese, chili oil, edamame, tomatoes, nori, and green onions — all topped with a piece of fried chicken that’s been dredged in Khao House’s spicy gochujang sauce.
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