Laos Thai Restaurant serves homemade fare, made with love Love is one of the secret ingredients in Darunee Watkins’ dishes. “I like to cook,” she says. “Some people say my food tastes good; I put my love in there. When you love something, you put more attention in it.” Watkins owns, cooks and loves at Laos Thai Restaurant on S. 24th St. between J and K. Ten years ago an ethnic grocery selling specialty Thai and Lao foods opened in the space. Three years ago, Watkins’ friend expanded the grocery to include the current restaurant. Watkins worked in the restaurant, learning to cook from her friend who turned the operation over to Watkins when she had to relocate to New Jersey. The restaurant doesn’t actually serve Lao cuisine, but it runs a menu typical of Thai restaurants including the country’s famous lemongrass-flavored tom yum soups, tangy papaya salad, coconut-milk curries and rice and noodle dishes. The grocery portion of the restaurant stocks curry pastes, the popular sriracha sauce, pungent fish sauce and difficult-to-find but all-important kaffir lime leaves, grown on one of Watkins’ kaffir lime trees. She also grows lemongrass, certain chilis used in Southeast Asian cooking, Thai basil, cilantro and mint. The store/restaurant takes up an unassuming storefront surrounded by South Omaha and its large Latino population. Inside, shelves are sparsely populated with her pastes and spices. Walls are decorated with small porcelain statues dressed in traditional Thai garb. There are a couple of portraits and photo murals devoted to Thailand’s king and queen. The kitchen is small but lively, and Watkins bustles about the restaurant chatting up customers and making their meals with the help of her family. She boasts of the authenticity of her food. She says her phad Thai, the most popular menu item, isn’t Americanized. “People think Americans don’t know what Thai food tastes like, but they do,” she says, adding that she doesn’t take shortcuts. She makes all the curry and chili pastes herself, which can be an incredibly involved process. As a result, her curries are rich and dense with just enough heat to wake up the taste buds. Her vegetable and meat dishes are fragrant with lemongrass and ginger and combinations of spices and chilis. She says people are especially appreciative of her treatment of the chilis. “Right now, young people want spicy,” she says with a laugh. “(They come in and say) I like Thai hot. Some people can do that. They eat hotter than me.” Watkins started out in her role at the restaurant as a bit of a skeptic. She worked weekends with her friend but knew how much time (and love) owning a restaurant requires. She jokes that she thought babysitting at home would be a better choice; certainly better hours and sometimes more cooperative clients. Main entrees run from $7.99 for phad Thai to $9 or $10 for dishes like cashew nut chicken, broccoli with oyster sauce and the green, yellow and red curries, to $12 for specialty curries with seafood. Salads are plentiful and run about $9. Soups cost $2.99. Watkins gets most of her business at lunch and closes in the summer at 7 p.m., and informally at 6 p.m. in the winter. She says the real trick to her food isn’t just love, it’s fresh food. “In a restaurant, you have to be nice and clean, and you have to serve good fresh food.” Laos Thai Restaurant, 4520 S. 24th St., is open Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. and Fri.-Sat. noon-8 p.m. Call 733.0579 for more information.