In North KC, Spices Asian Restaurant favors next-generation crowd pleasers

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Back in 1937, the novelist Sinclair Lewis, traveling through the Midwest on a lecture tour, wrote to a friend in New York that Kansas City was a town “entirely composed of chop suey joints.” Good luck finding chop suey here today. And you can take back your egg foo yong and your sweet-and-sour pork, for that matter. The U.S. bastardization of Chinese cuisine that passed for the real deal even a generation ago no longer counts.

What’s the present-day equivalent of a chop suey joint? It looks a little like Spices Asian Restaurant, a tidy little spot that opened this past summer in North Kansas City. I mean this in a strictly positive sense. The menu features a handful of authentic-fake Chinese classics — General Tso’s chicken, cashew chicken, wonton soup — that one still occasionally craves. But the emphasis is heavier on Thai and Vietnamese flavors, making this the latest localization of a pan-Asian practice begun in KC at Bo Lings and, to a lesser degree, at Red Snapper.

It’s an appealing approach, and I’ve long been a fan of this restaurant’s owners, Jessi and David Chouang, who have operated one of Johnson County’s oldest Thai restaurants, Bangkok Pavilion, since 1991. Spices has its glitches — the service can veer into Monty Python territory at moments — but the food is mostly very good. This kitchen can prepare both a satisfying Vietnamese pho and the more complicated tom yum, a fragrant and restorative Thai soup seasoned with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.

I’ve enjoyed more intensely flavored broths elsewhere, but the savory soups at Spices hold their own as complete meals, hearty and abundant with sliced beef in the pho (there’s only one version here) and, in the tom yum, crustaceans galore: shrimp, crabmeat and mussels, with squid also present.

I have friends who still insist that they love chop suey, and some who consider certain foreign cuisines “too weird.” Here’s a place I can comfortably meet those friends and push them to try, say, a roasted-duck soup or a spicy phad grapow. On one of my visits to Spices, I brought along one such wary eater, and even he was seduced by the Chouangs’ assemblage of dishes. He favored those that had a certain Midwestern resonance: slices of grilled pork sausage, smartly seasoned with ginger and sage, for instance, or the succulent baby back ribs, thickly glazed with a glossy chili-and-garlic sauce. Adventurous my friend is not, yet he had unwittingly gone on a little trip — and enjoyed himself.

Even Huck Finn would get all hot and bothered by the Chouangs’ version of deep-fried catfish, which comes drizzled with a “three taste” sauce meant to convey sweetness, spice and a hint of sour. I detected mostly the sugary part of the concoction, but there was fire — I didn’t feel like I was eating fried fish with syrup.

With its lack of meatless options, Spices is slightly out of step with other multicultural restaurants. Diners longing for something more flavorful than fried rice or spring rolls are mostly out of luck, though a lone vegetarian entrée — centered on three kinds of mushrooms sautéed with garlic and scallions (with or without tofu) — works fine.

The prices are reasonable. An ample slab of beautifully grilled salmon, under an evanescent crust of sesame and soy, costs $11 and comes with a heap of white rice and broccoli. (Jessi Chouang pushes the white rice here: “It absorbs the sauce and tastes better,” she says.)

There was, on my last visit to Spices, a supplementary menu of house specialties that included gang ped yang (a sensuous red coconut curry brimming with roasted duck) and a poultry dish, marinated in garlic and rum, that’s called Royal Chicken here but sounds remarkably like King & Ann chicken, which Ann Liberda served for years at her Thai Place. It tastes like Liberda’s woozy sautéed bird, too. And that’s a good thing.

Asian restaurants of any vintage have been slow to pick up on the dessert trend that Americans have embraced since the Pilgrims baked their first berry cobbler. But the Chouangs are particularly proud of a very traditional Thai delicacy: a mound of sticky rice sided with fresh mango and smothered in a clotted coconut milk cream. It’s, you know, sweet and sticky. Very sticky. Eating it made me long for the simplicity of the one Chinese food that Americans will always demand: fortune cookies.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews