At least it wasn't a cliché, like the one I found inside a really good, crispy cookie in San Francisco's Chinatown: "You bring happiness wherever you go." Even I know that's a lie. But if the fortunes at NCK are too weird to offer up clichés, the restaurant itself is one: the classic stereotype of a Chinese-American restaurant. And that's exactly what I like about the place. Just when you thought the 20th century was over, a place like NCK opens and you can walk out of the parking lot and right into 1965.
The 1965 that I remember as a kid, anyway, when going to a Chinese restaurant was an adventure, the atmosphere almost surreal. In those days, it was rare to find a Chinese restaurant serving its non-Asian diners anything hotter than pepper steak. I don't think I heard the word Szechwan until the 1970s. (Food writer John Mariani thinks Nixon's 1972 trip to China changed the way Americans perceived regional Chinese fare.) Then, suddenly, old, bland, Americanized standbys such as chow mein and lemon chicken fell out of favor and everyone wanted spicy.
NCK makes a boldfaced claim on its carry-out menu, promising "A Brand New Way of Chinese Cuisine Dining Sensation," adding, in italics, "The only authentic Szechwan restaurant in KC." Neither is accurate, but that's just part of the lunacy that makes NCK so damned lovable. Start with the name of the restaurant. The manager, Peter Young, insists that it's NCK, although the sign over the front door reads "New China King." (He also points out that there's no connection between this New China King and the lowbrow China King a few blocks east.)
What is brand-new is the restaurant's décor, which a friend of mine compared to the McDonald's on Hollywood Boulevard. It's just as noisy, with all kinds of hard surfaces. Workers gutted the location (which was home to the popular Imperial Palace restaurant for years before briefly becoming the second site of Chopstix), retaining only the shiny green-and-gold ceiling tiles and a ferocious golden dragon leering down from above. A friend of mine who frequents the shopping center swears that the new interior was constructed from a Chinese restaurant kit that was dropped off by a delivery truck.
That's possible. The postmodernist interior now boasts sand-colored floor tiles, laminated table tops, glass-panel dividers painted with cuddly pandas, and two TVs mounted on opposite corners of the main dining room. On my first visit, one of them was tuned to the Disney Channel. You might say it's a gradual improvement over what was once there.
My friend Patrick adored it. "It's bad verging on good," he said, noting that the walls had been painted the same shade of mustard-yellow favored by some fast-food chains -- a vibrant tone that reportedly makes customers want to eat and run -- and the waiters' shirts were the same color. That being said, the service couldn't be more relaxed, and the kitchen isn't exactly snappy.
What makes NCK more than OK is the food. That is, if you like traditional Cantonese-American cooking. Despite the "authentic Szechwan" claim, most of the dishes on the menu's first eight plastic-covered pages -- the ones in English -- are 1960s-era Chinese: six kinds of egg foo yong, bland chow mein, five versions of moo-shu, and the ubiquitous Happy Family dinner (this one claiming to include real lobster and crabmeat). There are Hunan and Szechwan dinners, too, but they're distinctly in the minority.