But at the new northern outpost of Bo Lings the fifth restaurant in the continually expanding restaurant empire owned by Richard and Theresa Ng there's roast duck on the menu and a living, breathing Duck working as a waiter in the dining room. It's not unusual to see Duck serving duck.
"It's really spelled Duc," the young man, a native of Vietnam, explained to us on the night I came to dine in the nine-month-old restaurant with Jeanne, Roxanne and Alexandra. "But I add the K so people will know how to pronounce it." His name tag spelled DUC in professionally printed letters; the letter K was scratched at the end with a ballpoint pen.
Duck's concern about Midwesterners' language needs charmed me almost as much as his attentiveness as a server. He was just one of the nicer discoveries at this sleekly handsome incarnation of Bo Lings.
When the Ngs opened the first Bo Lings (at 90th Street and Metcalf in Overland Park) in 1981, the young couple decorated it in the universal style of most Chinese-American restaurants.
"We had red hanging lanterns, red painted walls, bamboo wallpaper," Richard recalls. "That's what customers expected a Chinese restaurant to look like."
They also served the kind of bland fare that Midwestern customers expected egg foo yong, chicken chow mein and shrimp in lobster sauce. Over the years, the Ngs have quietly dropped a lot of those dishes and stopped cooking with canned ingredients such as bamboo shoots and baby corn. Yes, the kitchen crews at all the Bo Lings restaurants will still make egg foo yong and chow mein for customers who request them, but neither dish has appeared on the menu for years.
The flagship Bo Lings on Metcalf has had a face-lift, too, though the Zona Rosa model is different in style from the others, Ng says. "It's got its own look and personality."
The room is more Danish modern than Peking temple. When he took over the space briefly occupied by the short-lived Flat Wok Mongolian Grill, Ng gutted it. Beneath the soaring ceilings, he laid earth-tone floors and maple-stained woodwork. To complement a dazzling wall of windows, he painted the walls a creamy café au lait. All of which makes a focal point of the hanging light fixtures that Ng found in Shenzhen, China wavy cylinders of glass sheathed in brilliantly colored glass mosaic squares.
Ng had always been hesitant about opening a restaurant in the Northland. (All but one of his Kansas City venues are in Johnson County.) But a friend told him about the vacated Flat Wok space, and Ng fell in love with it. "There's so much happening in the north," he says. "And I had so many customers who drove in from north of the river to the Plaza location, and they didn't want to drive so far."
I was curious to see how the Ngs would fare in a bustling center heavy with big-name chain restaurants. With the dining room filled to capacity on all three of my visits, this new Bo Lings clearly is a contender.
But it's not too sophisticated for the occasional bizarre moment. When the four of us walked into the restaurant and stood in front of the hostess station, the pretty blonde behind the desk stared at us and said, "So there are three of you?"
Luckily, she escorted us to a big comfortable booth that would have seated at least four people. Maybe six. Fourteen-year-old Alexandra curled up at the end of the booth and examined the plastic bubble-tea menu perched on the table. "What are bubble teas?" she asked.
"More like soft drinks than tea," I told her, shaking a burgundy napkin into my lap. "But not carbonated. The bubbles are sort of like squishy, chewy balls. Like Gummi Bears." (I didn't dare mention the word tapioca the starchy pearls used to make those chewy orbs because that would have ended the discussion immediately.) The exotic flavors were intriguing enough that Alexandra and her 16-year-old sister agreed to try the beverages, especially after I promised that they wouldn't taste like, you know, tea. Alexandra chose strawberry; her sister decided on passion fruit.
And Duck brought some appetizers for us to share. The teens are notoriously fussy eaters (one refuses to touch vegetables), so obviously the crispy fried eggplant and Vietnamese spring rolls were out. The kids gave high marks to the crab rangoon and crispy fried tubes stuffed with chopped shrimp, drenching them with a sweet sauce that looked and tasted like melted orange marmalade. Jeanne and I preferred the steamed pork-and-chive dumplings, a more grown-up starter.
The menu at this Bo Lings is slimmer Ng has reduced the number of offerings and added a few different cultural choices, such as pad Thai, Singapore curry noodles and Malaysian-inspired laksa lemak.
Jeanne couldn't be persuaded to sample one of those and stuck with a more familiar favorite, moo shu pork, served with paper-thin pancakes and plum sauce. I rarely order the dish anymore, but the Ngs' new kitchen did a fabulous job with it. Alexandra and Roxanne shocked me by ordering two of the more recent additions to this menu. Roxanne's Szechwan-peppercorn chicken was so luscious that she and I almost fought over the slices of white breast meat slathered in a fiery mahogany sauce made with Chinese peppercorns, garlic and fermented bean paste. Alexandra's honey-and-walnut chicken, meanwhile, was a plate piled with golden puffs of batter-fried chicken pieces lacquered with a shiny honey-mayonnaise glaze.
The mayo seemed an odd ingredient, but Richard Ng assures me that it's become a beloved delicacy among Asian diners. "The Japanese really love it," he says. "And in our dish, it adds a slightly sour note to the sweet honey."
It was tasty, just too sweet for me. (For a sugar-loving 14-year-old, it was nirvana.) I was much more thrilled with my own half-order of Beijing roasted duck: a square china plate heaping with juicy, bite-sized pieces of duck meat covered with gorgeously greasy, crispy bits of amber skin. It was a truly decadent (and fattening) choice, but I greedily pressed the meat and duck skin, along with slivers of chilled cucumber and feathery scallions, into yeasty steamed buns for one of the most succulent sandwiches ever.
We were too stuffed to consider dessert, though Bo Lings is now offering such Western selections as cheesecake, "chocolate lava cake" and, of course, tiramisu.
I remembered the tiramisu when I returned a couple of nights later with Patrick, who agreed that we wouldn't eat too much in order to save room for the sweet. We shared the vegetable lettuce wraps (which tasted just like the P.F. Chang's version) and the sensational Szechwan dumplings. We then skipped the soup and moved eagerly to the entrées. I wish that a more potent "light ginger sauce" had coated the shrimp, pillowy scallops and chicken on the House Special Sizzling Rice. Alas, the sauce wasn't just light it was flavorless.
Patrick's choice, XO seafood with clear noodles, came in a pretty covered bowl generously filled with shrimp, mussels, scallops and calamari in a deceptively spicy liquid. "You think it's just a very soothing, warm brown sauce at first bite." he said. "A few seconds later, you get the kick."
That's because Ng's kitchen staff doesn't use just any chili sauce but a kick-ass XO sauce. "You know how drinkers move up from Courvoisier cognac to the XO version? Well, this is our upscale XO version of chili sauce," Richard says.
Patrick loved it but opted to take half home so we could sample our first Chinese-American tiramisu.
Well, not really. The Ngs import it from a bakery, but it's creamy and dense and not half bad. And better than a fortune cookie.