Until recently, my favorite after-11 p.m. dining experience involved sitting at the counter at Town Topic and trying to decide among the patty melt, the fries and the chocolate cream pie. My second-favorite after-11 p.m. dining experience: ordering all three. But I'm going to have to put that feast in a new category: after 3 a.m. There's a new No. 1 at 11 p.m., and I found it in a cozy Chinese restaurant in Overland Park.
The ABC Café — open until midnight six days a week — isn't just a rare late-night Chinese restaurant. It's also one of the most authentic Cantonese venues in the metro.
Like any good last-call destination, it's a good place to eat alone (or with companions who have limited attention spans). The five or six tables on the western side of the dining room are outfitted with a wall-mounted video monitor tuned to a California-based Chinese station that plays (at an inaudible volume level) teen-oriented music-competition shows, news programs and a lot of car commercials. I asked my server one evening if the featured program I was staring at was an Asian-American version of American Idol. Without missing a beat, she looked at the screen, shrugged and said, "I don't think it's that good." Then she left a ceramic pot of hot tea on the table and left me to stare at the color photographs of the dim sum specials inside an illustrated, spiral-bound menu.
No one else in the dining room (which, it must be said, is charmlessly lighted) was looking at the TV screens just then. The larger parties were engaged in lively conversation, sharing specialties from small plates on the big Lazy Susans on their tables. The smaller two-tops were occupied by young, attractive couples. There wasn't an empty seat in the house. Fair enough — this was before 8 p.m.
A few nights later, I went back with my friend Martha. We arrived at 11:30 p.m. and found the restaurant just as full as it had been during prime time. There was an Entourage-style group of 20-something Chinese-American hipsters, tattooed and dazzlingly handsome, who got up from their table every 10 minutes or so to pace through the parking lot, puffing on Marlboros and talking into cell phones.
"It's very Hong Kong," said the well-traveled Martha, observing the scene as she expertly wielded a set of black chopsticks and plucked up delicate, paper-thin slices of translucent amber beef tendon. I used a fork, stabbing the bits of chilled tendon with increasing delight as I found that the rubbery-looking connective tissue wasn't chewy at all but supple. Each bite added to the dish's slowly accumulating fire.
Martha toured through China for a job and was game to sample all kinds of the more unusual delicacies on ABC Café's menu, including the steamed chicken feet, braised in a spicy, soy-based sauce. I found that it was something of a job eating the modestly meaty feet — too much exertion for too little pleasure. One pair of the cocky claws was enough for me.
A bowl of shrimp-stuffed wonton purses, drenched in a searing, sexy chili sauce was a different story. I couldn't stop eating them. Even more satisfying was a bowl of fragrant soup — a cloudy, gingery broth — dappled with soft threads of egg white, tiny meatballs, sliced mushrooms and fresh cilantro. "This is better than anything I tasted in Beijing," Martha told Cindy Cheung, who opened the restaurant with her husband, chef Jackie Lee, 18 months ago. Cheung seemed very pleased. Kansas City's native Chinese community has been wild about the new restaurant, she told us, but the Midwestern patrons who think of "Chinese" cuisine as orange beef or General Tso's chicken — neither of which is available at ABC Café, by the way — have been slow to discover the delights of fish-ball porridge, shredded dough with water-chestnut gelatin, steamed pig feet, and turnip cakes.
But you don't have to be hungry for the exotic to enjoy yourself here. The night I dined early at the restaurant, with Steve and Marianne, we stuck with relatively mainstream dishes: a succulent, tender pork chop in a memorable honey-garlic glaze, vibrantly orange pan-fried shrimp, and strips of beef sautéed with green peppers in a piquant black-bean sauce. We watched different, perhaps more intriguing, dishes stream out of the kitchen, but my friends didn't do tofu, let alone deep-fried intestines.
On my late-night foray to the ABC Café, the waxing moon made me want to try something new. In this case, that meant a white-hot pottery bowl filled with bubbling brown gravy and, buried in its curry-scented depths, chunks of fork-tender beef and long-braised swaths of beef tendon. I spooned the ingredients over white rice and ate with gusto. A plate of deliciously moist steamed chicken pieces, blanketed in ribbons of sliced scallions, proved an ideal vehicle for an oily sauce of preserved ginger and chopped onion — a sauce so extraordinary that I lost all reserve about asking for refills.
By the time I'd finally had enough, it was after midnight. Customers were still walking through the front door, a little past ABC's curfew, as my server boxed up the leftovers and asked about dessert. There was mango pudding or coconut rolls or even red-bean puffs, but what I really wanted wasn't on the menu: chocolate cream pie. Some late-night eating habits are simply too hard to break.