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I couldn't bear the idea of the big, gummy blobs of tapioca sticking to my teeth, but my vegan friend Alethea was entranced by the taro-flavored version of the drink, which she described as "vaguely malty, somewhat like chai tea." Another friend, less exhilarated by the sensation, confessed to me that hours after drinking the brew, "I couldn't get the feeling of those balls out of my mouth."
But I was in total agreement with Alethea when it came to a vegan-friendly appetizer of golden pillows of fried tofu, soft and puffy under a delicate crispy crust. We swirled them in a puddle of glossy "awesome sauce," which, despite its crushed chilies, garlic and cilantro, was more sweet than fiery. I might never have ordered it if I hadn't been with Alethea, whose vegan ideals kept me from renewing my passion for two appetizers I had already sampled: chopped cooked chicken sizzling with tart basil and wrapped in cold lettuce leaves, and "wraps" of roasted duck splashed with tangy hoisin sauce and tucked into a soft rice sheath with cucumber, onion and cilantro.
Unfortunately for Alethea, though, she couldn't find any vegan-friendly offerings among the eight dumpling choices -- all of which take forever to arrive. And there were only two noodle dishes she could eat: a bowl of braised tofu and chopped shiitake mushrooms (heaped on a pile of noodles or a mound of rice) or a vegetarian noodle soup. We had both sampled the braised tofu on earlier visits; I'd found it to be pleasant in an utterly bland way, while Alethea had more positive memories. But the noodle soup proved more challenging to her taste buds. The oversized bowl was filled with soft white noodles, chunks of ivory tofu and crisp cauliflower, carrots, snow peas, celery and fresh corn cobettes -- but it was all "strangely flavorless," Alethea said. To give it more zest, she dumped a shocking amount of sriracha hot chili sauce into the bowl, and her eyes watered for the next hour.
At that meal, I bypassed my distaste for the name "Ants on a Tree" and fell hard for the Taiwanese dish of amber cellophane noodles tossed with bits of chopped carrot and cabbage and mildly spiced ground pork. It was even better than the chopped braised pork, flavored with fresh shallots and poured over rice, that I had tasted a few days earlier. That was the night Midwestern-born Bob gave thumbs up to his first bowl of Chinese pot roast, a marinated slab of slow-roasted, fork-tender beef ladled over rich noodles. This pot roast wasn't all that different from my Ohio grandmother's Sunday version, and it even held up cold the next day, straight out of the refrigerator.
My grandma, who was no fan of Chinese food, whipped up spicy apple crisp or fruit pies to go with her pot roast and -- surprise! -- there's a similar version of a cinnamon-crumble apple crisp on Blue Koi's dessert menu. There's also Key lime pie and an ice cream concoction made with Snickers bars. None of the unabashedly American desserts is made in this restaurant's kitchen, but who cares? At Kansas City's most iconoclastic Asian restaurant, what did you expect? Fortune cookies?