happy (chinese) new year!
Gōng shee kwai luh!! In celebration of the new year of the Dog (January 29), I divulge my long-held, well honed, and up until now, wonderfully and selfishly treasured secrets to enjoying authentic Chinese food in Kansas City. Listed below are, in my opinion, the best Chinese restaurants in the metropolitan area. I’ve listed each one and my favorite dishes at each – based on their regional cuisine specialty, consistency and quality.But, before I post my restaurant list, here are some definitions, tips and game rules. I know it’s a long and detailed list – but do try to make your way through it:
1. When I use the word “best,” I mean authentic. Make sure you understand this definition before proceeding.
2. “Authentic” means authentic; it is the antithesis of the cowardly squeamish attitude that plagues the American mindset. If you’re the type that goes around begging for authentic Chinese food but won’t work past offal or other non-Western cuts or types of meat, (you know who you are) then forget it… this list won’t help you a bit. Not that authentic Chinese food has to be “strange” – and certainly, not all of it involves rare animals or innards – but a lot of it (and some of the very best) does. Also, if you’re afraid of food because of the way it looks, smells or you rely on the tired texture excuse (“I don’t like its texture”) – then you might as well abandon the rest of this post as well. Many Chinese dishes – especially the stews, don’t necessarily appeal to the Western sense of “food style.” Chinese stews may not smell like your mom’s chicken noodle, or look as appetizing to you as clam chowder, or is not as texturally friendly as gazpacho – that’s ‘cause it ain’t. For those of you who will try anything once, I know you will find my suggestions revealing and, even if not all-pleasing, will provide you with an adventuresome and true cultural dining experience. (I’m assuming that I’m writing to a largely non-Asian readership).
3. I know it’s a joke – but it’s true – the “writing is on the wall.” The best dishes are always written on the vertical strips of rice paper that hang on the walls. So how is a non-Chinese speaking person supposed to decipher the secret to a great meal? You could always just point at a few for a “grab-bag” approach – but, that’s why I’m here to help. I’ve done all the research and if you take my advice and add a bit of your own adventurous detours, you’ll enjoy the food that non-Asians can’t usually access in Chinese restaurants. If in doubt you may have to improvise and ad lib by asking the server for off-menu suggestions or items that I mention below. It may take some awkward linguistic fumbling, but trust me – it’ll be worth the trouble.
4. I’ve provided phonetic spellings of some of the more unfamiliar dishes/ingredients. Never having been a student of pin yin spelling (and quite frankly, its method has never made sense to me – for instance, why use “x” to produce a “sh” sound when you could simply just use “sh?”), I eschew that system and have come up with my own, more Western-friendly and intuitive convention.
5. If questioned – insist that you want the real stuff. A lot of Chinese servers/proprietors are fearful of serving truly authentic Chinese foods (especially offal and other rare cuts/meats) to Westerners for fear of disappointment. However, if you keep an open mind, and humbly hold your ground – you can demonstrate to them that you are sincere in your request. Be patient… especially with English-weak staff. They truly do want to, and will, help you. I personally know that the vast majority of Chinese restaurants in Kansas City staff Chinese chefs. That being said, these “chefs” operate at vastly varying levels of competence. Some are literally new immigrants who work as chefs out of lack of employment options. Others, are very fine craftsman who have been “brought in” to improve a restaurant’s food. Regardless, most are horrified by the American palate and yearn to cook traditional cuisine – so give them the chance!
6. I’m sure most of you already know how, but if you haven’t mastered the skill of using chopsticks – please do try. And, remember, there’s no embarrassment in going in a Chinese restaurant and hacking, or rather harpooning, your way through a meal. As long as you’re trying, your efforts are well appreciated! Ask for rice in a bowl (instead of eating off of a plate – which really cancels out the benefits of using chopsticks). This will not only increase your credit with the staff and chef, but provide for a much user-friendly format for eating á la Rule #7 (see below).
7. Learn to eat Chinese style – that is, family style. For the couples, families and groups out there, this is an economical, fun and authentic way to eat Chinese food. This will be difficult for lone diners, but hopefully an encouragement for them to organize a group outing. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I am still horrified at the sight of a couple of diners in which one is working his way through a whole plate of broccoli and beef by himself while his companion chows down exclusively on a plateful of Kung Pao whatever. Order a variety and share – try a little bit of everything. Balance is key: A plate or two of vegetables and a couple of meat-centered dishes; perhaps a soup – and, as Jamie Oliver would say, “you’re laughin’, mate.”
8. No desserts – sorry, I’m not even sure what Chinese restaurants are offering in the way of sweets…. usually, at the end of a large Chinese meal, the hostess will generally bring out a plate of orange wedges – and sometimes a hot sweet soup – like peanut soup or a slightly watery coconut broth with tapioca and taro root. If you don’t get anything, don’t despair, always ask if you can try something authentic.
9. You probably know this by now – but regardless of how tempting the buffet looks – don’t go near it if you want authentic Chinese food. That being said, the presence of a buffet shouldn’t deter you, nor is it necessarily an accurate index by which to judge a Chinese restaurant.
10. A note on MSG (mono-sodium glutamate): if you are sensitive or object to MSG, you may certainly ask for it to be left out of your food. Honest restaurateurs will tell you that it is not possible – which indicates that their foods and/or sauces may be prepared. Others may just lie. At cook-to-order restaurants (and as far as I know, all four I mention are), you should demand that MSG be left out, and usually, they are pretty good about complying.
11. Finally- have fun! Although he really irks me, Emeril’s “food of love” slogan holds true to the Chinese culture. Eating is a way of life, love and happiness in the culture… it is the glue that binds the family, friends and business deals. Oh, and it’s okay to eat the fortune cookie – but not before reading the fortune – out loud to everyone.Now, as promised:
It ain’t pretty, but you’ll be lucky if you can get a table at Lucky Wok, located at 15129 West 87th Street in Lenexa. I know, I know, the buffet that greets you at the door looks scary – but, remember Rule #9. Ignore it and just be content with cramming yourself into one of the crowded tables and enjoy being “stuck” for a wonderful Cantonese fare.
You’ll have to navigate your way around the menu to eliminate the “Americanized” dishes at this restaurant (which looked pretty awful). This might be difficult for the non-Chinese diner. For the best items, look for non-familiar descriptions, or take my lead:
The traditional pork belly with taro root (yù tō kō rō) is spectacular here. Velvety scalloped taro root comes enrobed in a thick, dark, and slightly sweet soy-based sauce made unctuous by the thick fatback pork (yes, fatback). This dish is very rich, and moderation is key (you’ll be tempted to eat it all). You can also have it with Chinese sauerkraut, the more common preparation (may gan tsai kō rō).
Steamed whole flounder is very good here as well (ching tsun lōng lee). An entire fish (with the head, of course) comes with just enough light soy and sesame oil broth to wet it and is covered by a generous field of shredded scallion and ginger. The fish is steamed perfectly so that the meat can be filleted from the spine with a gentle tug of the serving spoon. The small order should be big enough for two; the medium should be ample for parties of three to five (as a part of a two or three-course meal) – I’m a little afraid to see how large these flounders get on the large order.
If you like Chinese preserved (salted) fish, then you must get their hot pot with chicken (jee) and tofu flavored with pungent salty fish (shièn yú). The little cuts of chicken are so tender you could mistake them for baby bay scallops (I swear, for once, it doesn’t taste like chicken!). Spooned over a heap of steaming rice, it will send you swooning! Equally good is Lucky Wok’s sea cucumbers (hī sun). Served in a thick dark soy-based sauce with Chinese black mushrooms, the gelatinous creatures are delightfully fresh and clean tasting and not gritty at all.If you like hot and sour soup (swan la tong), then you’ve got to order it here. I generally avoid soups at even the most reliable-looking Chinese restaurant – for all the obvious reasons: a sea of MSG, food colouring, preservatives, sodium, etc…; too much “stuffing” (ie. cornstarch); poor ingredients (“krab” meat); and on it goes. But, Lucky Wok’s version is a surprisingly fresh. To heighten your experience, add a bit more heat with white pepper (in the pepper shaker) and do experiment with the red vinegar (vinegar condiment container). Tangy, with a fresh and sweet fruity note, the vinegar adds a bright note.
One of the best duck (yaa) preparations I’ve ever had was Lucky Wok’s version – braised, sliced, and buried beneath a ‘cornucopious’ mound of beef, chicken, squid, shrimp, giant black mushroom caps, pork, sea cucumbers and emerald green bok choy. Benefiting from the slow wet cooking process, the duck breast is fork-tender and the flavors of the seasonings and other meat have chased away any foul (pun intended) gamey/ducky odors.
15129 West 87th Street
Lenexa, Kansas 66219
913.894.8808I’ve had many a multi-course banquets at Fortune Star, and nearly everything I’ve had, has been very good. Now, I will say that the restaurant has changed chefs through the many years that I’ve visited and nuances in preparation styles, the chefs’ strengths and weaknesses have been noticeable. However, every visit has been commendable. Vegetables are bright and fresh, sauces are light yet flavorful, and portions are generous.
On my latest visit (post-Christmas December, 2005), the chef really outdid himself with the appetizer “cold plate” – literally translated from the Chinese lung pan. I have enjoyed Fortune Star’s lung pan a number of times, and it is always a veritable feast in itself. An absolute must if you’re going in a large party, this is a gorgeously arranged platter of paper-thin sliced cold cuts, often varietal meats, fanned out like a giant blossoming flower: tender squid, chewy beef tongue, melt-in-your-mouth pork and pork aspic, and the slightly sweet and smoky Chinese barbecued pork, just to name a few. If your extravagant, abalone could make it on the plate as well. Non-meat offerings include spongy and savory sweet “vegetarian chicken” (su jee), a traditional food of monks, cold fried tofu, and velvety marinated Chinese black mushrooms. The “heart” of the flower blossom is always (but I’ve always requested, so I’m not sure what else could be substituted), a glistening mound of jellyfish (hai zuh pee). Flecked with flakes of red chile, this tangle of vinegary-sweet cartilaginous strips of jellyfish is refreshed by melon-like delicate cucumber shoestrings and grassy cilantro.
I’ve tried about every soup that the chef can prepare and all have been a cut above. My favorite is the, literally translated, “Western Lake beef stew” (shee hoo nieuw rō gung). Thick and warming, this clear broth is a hearty helping of crumbled ground beef with a mélange of baby vegetables – usually mini-mushrooms, baby corn, peas and finely diced carrot surrounded by whisps of “dropped” egg whites. A dash of white pepper (ask for some) gives this soup a nice smoky edge.
Shrimp with snow peas and garlic has been invariably great. Not too garlicky, the sweetness of the plump shrimp and crisp snow peas sings through the light sauce. Spicy squid (yiō yú) with cashews and celery is always a favorite. The scored curls of buttery tender squid come slightly caramelized with a sweat-inducing fiery glaze and commingle with crunchy cashews and celery.
I’ve had a couple of the hot stew pots – and the niew jing bao (not to be confused with bao, which, depending on your inflection could mean a bun)has been far and away my favorite. Tasty bits of beef shank meat cling to golden gelatinous nuggets of tendon that have been rendered aspic soft by hours of braising in a savory thick broth.
Salt and pepper shrimp is another winner (yièn jeow sha). Whole prawns are deep fried so crispy that the generously salt-and-peppered giants can be eaten head, shell and all. Yum! For something more extravagant, try the tszōng giang tsow pong shea. Crabs are chopped, shells cracked and then stir-fried with a scallions, ginger, and Chinese rice liquor. Some beaten eggs are added at the very end to thicken the sauce. The crab meat, made easily accessible by the pre-cracking, is succulent and fragrant.
Fortune Star can prepare a traditional Peking duck service (with pancake wrappers, scallions and plum sauce) with advanced notice (usually 24-48 hours). Their duck is good, but not great, but it’s always a novelty and at least it’s offered.
7328 West 119th Street
Overland Park, Kansas 66213
I must defend New China King against Charles Ferruzza, who’s underwhelming review in the pitch (July, 2005) made him (with all due respect Mr. Ferruzza) sound like a bumbling idiot. Although he doesn’t exactly pan the restaurant, he does not understand or appreciate the restaurant’s true quality either. Just short of calling it “cute,” he underestimates the truly “authentic Szechwan cuisine” served in this Watts Mill strip-mall. But, Mr. Ferruzza’s ignorance must be excused. After all, he can’t read the writing on the wall – where most of the “real” food is found.I know Ferruzza says that English is not the restaurant’s forte (and he’s right), but I’m sure the staff can give you some clue as to whether the dish is meat, vegetable, stew, etc… by the way, avoid the duck.
To be honest, I haven’t done a whole lot of exploring at “NCK” – yet. But, here are a couple of fail-safe options – especially for the spicy eaters: The restaurant’s specialties are their Szechwan dishes. If you’re not a spicy eater, I really think you’ll be missing out on some of the restaurant’s best dishes. The spicy poached tilapia is divine. Although it’s called “water-cooked fish” in Chinese, (schwā tzoo yú), this is actually a big bowl of butter-tender tilapia chunks immersed in a sweat-producingly-spicy chile oil with Chinese cabbage. Braised in the hot oil, not only has the flavor of the chile penetrated each piece of fish, but the cabbage becomes meltingly velvety.
Spicy beef/pork tripe (ma la nieuw du/ma la tzoo du), served cold, is an absolute must on the “appetizer” list. It’s the kind of thing that would go great with a mug of cold beer on hot summer day. At first bite, the tang of vinegar brightens your palate and awakens the appetite. But this is soon followed by a snappy heat that intensifies slowly until you’re begging for a tall glass of milk – beware!
Where Ferruzza does hit the bulls-eye in his review is in describing the restaurant’s décor. If any of you are old enough to remember the restaurant’s ancestral origins, the present space, as Ferruzza amusingly and accurately describes as looking as if it were “constructed from a Chinese restaurant kit that was dropped off by a delivery truck,” is a far cry from the royal (if not a little t.v.-set kitschy, but nice) trappings of the original Imperial Palace Restaurant in the late seventies and early eighties. Now, the once spacious “palace” has been split up and New China King occupies an awkwardly truncated section, keeping the elevated dining space on the left side of the restaurant. True, the randomly tuned t.v. monitors don’t necessarily enhance your dining experience, but, it makes a great friend if you’re dining alone (be warned, it may be re-runs of Knight Rider on TNT…).
New China King
1215 West 103rd Street
Kansas City, Missouri 64114
If you’re looking for that secret late-night spot where all the Chinese chefs go after they close their own restaurants – head to Jen Jen’s. Tucked away in a stand-alone island amidst the sprawling strip-mall world of Metcalf Avenue in Shawnee Mission, this unassuming little restaurant serves up some of the most authentic Cantonese dishes in town. Nearly everything I’ve tried at Jen Jen’s has been good to spectacular.
If you can prop your eyes open and want to roll with the chefs, or hoards of young Chinese students who flock there in the wee hours of the morning, you can down a satisfying bowl of traditional Cantonese congee, a rice porridge (gwong dōng tzō) (congee service starts at around 11pm). Steaming and comforting on a cold night, you can have your choice of a myriad authentic preparations – like thousand-year egg with pork and black mushroom, or my favorite, dried scallops and scallions. However, if one o’clock in the morning is past your bed-time, don’t worry, they’ll take care of you just the same – just don’t be turned off by the often empty dining room. People don’t know what they’re missing.
Unlike New China King, you don’t necessarily have to venture off the printed menus onto the walls to get the best dishes (although it couldn’t hurt). Many of the ones I’ve had off their menu are great. In fact, I’m convinced you could just blindfold yourself and point randomly at choices and be pleased with the results.
If you know what you’re doing, the chefs at Jen Jen’s can prepare dishes to your liking. For instance, a specialty of the Cantonese cuisine, Chinese preserved salted fish (see Lucky Wok above) can be added as a pungent and full-flavored accent to any dish. I’ve asked for it to be added to any number of their (usually vegetable) dishes, like bok choy stir fry, pea shoots (dō meow), and hollow-heart spinach (kōng shing tsai) – and the chef has always happily accommodated.
Another treat is preserved salted fish-fried rice (shièn yú tsow fan). Bits of salty oily fish stud are lightly stir-fried white steamed rice and small diced vegetable. I’m usually so pleased with this, that I hardly have room for anything else… which is a pity considering all the other goodies to be had!
Being the tofu mavens that the Cantonese are, Jen Jen’s tofu choices are always a treat – especially their tofu with minced shrimp – mini-Snickers-sized blocks of tofu encasing a finely minced shrimp cake are lightly fried and sauced over lightly with soy sauce and ginger. Pot stews are also excellent showcase for tofu – excruciatingly soft and silky tofu can be ordered in a thick saucy stew with just about anything – beef, chicken, fish, pork, or, what my family has unanimously agreed is the best: spicy eggplant (to difficult to translate, sorry) and preserved salty fish. Do yourself a favor and go, go, go!
9066 Metcalf Avenue
Shawnee Mission, Kansas 66212
If you’re looking to celebrate birthday in real Chinese style – go with noodles. Appropriately, the long strands of egg, wheat , bean or rice-based pasta symbolizes longevity. Despite its “Western-style” m.o., Blue Koi on 39th Street is the place to go.Almost every noodle dish I’ve tried has been stellar. My favorite is the terribly authentic Taiwanese Ants on a Tree (ma yi shong su) – bits of minced pork stir-fried with garlic is mixed in with translucent bean vermicelli. I also recommend the Shanghai Wonton Noodle Soup. Silky opaque white rice-wrapper stuffed meat “ravioli” swim in a hot clear broth with noodles and vegetables.
Chinese-Style Pot Roast on noodles is also very good – you can get this in three different versions: noodle soup, plain noodles or over rice. Get it on the noodles – the soup tends to dilute the flavor-intense meat.
1803 West 39th Street
Kansas City, Missouri
816.561.5003At Blue Koi’s sister restaurant, Genghis Khan, skip the all-you-can eat “Mongolian Barbecue” (which is neither Mongolian, nor a barbecue) and be satisfied in ordering the Basil Pot. You have your choice of chicken, tofu or squid. Choose the squid and you’ll be treated to a steaming hot pot of buttery cuts of squid stewing in a thick dark soy-based sauce with a whole patch’s-worth of fragrant basil and about five heads of garlic cloves. It’s a party in a pot! I can’t decide what the best part of this dish is – the basil, the squid or the garlic cloves, which have been deep-fried before being added to the stew. Spooned over rice, you won’t look twice at the Mongolian Barbecue line ever again! Seating can be tight and the lunch crowd thick, so give yourself some lead time.
Genghis Khan (Two locations)
Westport just around the corner from Blue Koi at:
3906 Bell Road
Kansas City, Missouri
816.753.3600Northland location in the Boardwalk Square:
8634 North Boardwalk
Kansas City, Missouri