China feast: It’s no secret that Kansas Citians love Chinese food — the local yellow pages list more than 160 Chinese restaurants. And that doesn’t include supermarket carry-out departments or casino buffets, which always seem to have at least an egg roll or a crab rangoon lurking around.
It’s easy, but unfair, to gripe that most Chinese restaurants don’t serve those all-American comfort foods, such as dessert (see review of Andy’s Wok above); the passion for elaborate sweets is a European tradition, not an Asian one. At the Plaza Bo Ling’s (4800 Main Street), owner Richard Ng only recently added a single dessert item, which has its roots in Mediterranean cooking, not Chinese.
The new Bo Ling’s sweet is a milk-based crème caramel ($2) — a light and creamy flan. And on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Plaza and Overland Park (9055 Metcalf) locations, servers wheel clattering dim sum carts around the dining rooms, offering more traditional Chinese dessert fare: flan in a pastry nest, tofu custard in ginger syrup, a sesame ball filled with red bean paste, steamed sponge cake, baked tapioca, and an almond-flavor gelatin.
I had heard that Palace Express (4128 Rainbow Boulevard) served wonderful pastries, but not even a single almond cookie occupied the glass display case on the evening I stopped in for an early dinner. A former Taco Bell with whitewashed interior walls and a bustling, steamy open kitchen with five giant woks — usually all cooking something at once under the direction of a juggler-like cook — Palace Express is less than glamorous. But for sheer value, you can’t beat the place. Not a single entrée is more than $5. I sampled a combination plate of freshly made kung pao chicken and pepper beef ($4.25), served with fried rice. The Styrofoam plate was so heaped with food that it could have fed two people; I barely made a dent in it, although it was extraordinarily good. Among the 51 different entrées, there’s something called peanut butter chicken ($4.25), which sounds suspiciously Midwestern.
Palace Express stays open until 10 p.m. for diners with a late-night craving for a fast plate of hot braised chicken or lemon shrimp.
Only a little cheaper — but totally blah — is the so-called Oriental food at the deli counter at Meiner’s in Brookside (74 W. 62nd Terrace), where vats of dried-out shrimp fried rice and rubbery crab rangoon share space with American-style fried chicken tenders (which are actually tasty), catfish fillets, and creamy macaroni and cheese.
Sure, it’s convenient having Chinese food right across from the vegetable department and barely an aisle away from the packaged cheeses, but the Chinese-style dishes are salty and practically inedible. There wasn’t a single peanut to be found in the little bowl of kung pao shrimp ($2.49), a limp concoction of tiny fried shrimp, red and yellow peppers, and onion in a mildly spiced broth. The shrimp fried rice ($2.49) was far worse, a glutinous glob of soy-drenched fried rice, tiny shrimp that were so overcooked they seemed fossilized, and soggy, grayish peas. One bite was more than plenty.
If the idea is to save time by chomping down a fast Chinese meal, the recently renovated China Tom’s Restaurant, now called New China Tom’s (2816 W. 47th Street) offers a zippy Chinese lunch buffet ($4.95). Once a tiny little neighborhood joint tucked into a strip center near a tavern and a thrift shop, the place has doubled in size and, like Andy’s Wok, has gotten a glamour makeover. Seven days a week, Tom’s heaps the shiny buffet tables with traditional Chinese dishes (General Tso’s chicken, Mongolian pork) and some bizarre American inventions, such as tater tots, french fries, and fried mozzarella sticks.
And there’s a good old American-style dessert too: orange Jell-O cubes!