The first thing Connie Cheng learned how to cook was rice. She was taught the process as a child while assisting her mother and grandmother in the kitchen of their Garland home. After mastering rice, she was assigned rudimentary tasks like pulling apart noodles for stir fry, peeling rice paper for egg rolls and crushing garlic and chiles with a mortar and pestle. By the age of 10, Cheng knew her way around a kitchen and had mastered a range of dishes on her own.
“I am a first-generation Cambodian American,” she says. “I was raised in a very traditional household. I learned all of our traditional Khmer dishes at a young age.”
In the fourth grade, eager to share her heritage and culinary skills with her friends, she threw a birthday party where guests made their own dinner. “We rolled egg rolls and spring rolls. It was actually a big hit. It was the first time I could share my culture with my classmates," she says.
And now, with a couple of decades of experience and a collection of new recipes under her belt, Cheng is sharing her abilities with Dallas.
Krio opened in Bishop Arts on June 21. The Asian-Cajun restaurant from Cheng and her business partner Dan Bui specializes in banh mi, baskets of fried seafood and crawfish boils. The pair spent two years searching for the perfect place ― hunting in usual spots like Deep Ellum and Lower Greenville ― before coming across the building at 233 W. Seventh St. Cheng, a Kessler Park resident who was already smitten with Bishop Arts, says that the location just felt right. When you know, you know. They started construction in November of last year.
Opening a restaurant during the pandemic might seem like a futile task. But even through temporary closures, limited seating capacities, and an overwhelming collective anxiety concerning the fate of, well, just about everything, Cheng has managed to hold on to her optimism.
“We have just been so blessed with all the love and support from the neighborhood and our friends,” she says. “Everyone from Veracruz Café to Paradiso comes in. You’re looking out for other businesses because you know that they’re hurting just like you. It has brought the community a lot closer.”
Connie Cheng’s Shrimp Asparagus Soup
One of the dishes that Connie Cheng perfected as a child was egg drop soup. She and her younger brother delighted in watching the yolks and whites swirl and transform into creamy ribbons as they hit the scalding broth. “It was magical,” she reminisces. From there, she mastered fish maw soup, and then started testing out her own recipes.
Her shrimp asparagus soup is piquant and rich and a welcome dish as we shift seasons and approach cooler months. The recipe makes up to 10 servings, which is great if you’re really hungry, but even better if you feel like sharing with the people you care for. Soup is like a warm hug. Some might argue that it’s even better than a hug these days. You won’t spend the weeks after being wrapped in its embrace worrying about whether or not you spread, or caught, germs. You’ll just be happy. And full.
2 tablespoons sesame oil
4 ounces grated ginger
2 tablespoons minced garlic
8 cups water
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
2 teaspoons garlic salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 cups asparagus, sliced diagonally and thinly
1 cup salad-size shrimp
1 cup egg whites (from about 6 eggs)
Green onion and chile oil, for garnish
Set a large stockpot over medium heat, add sesame oil and sauté ginger and garlic until golden brown.
Add 2 cups of water and cornstarch to create roux. Stir. Slowly add the rest of the water and keep stirring for a nice consistency. Do not worry if it seems thin; the heat will thicken it up.
Add white pepper, garlic salt, fish sauce and oyster sauce.
Once it comes to a boil, add asparagus and shrimp and stir. Let it boil for 5 minutes.
Turn off the heat and pour in egg whites. Give it a little stir and egg whites will do their magic.
Garnish with green onion and chile oil.
Makes 8-10 servings.
Connie’s quarantine kitchen essentials
Three Crabs Fish Sauce
A Kitchen Aid mixer