Ann Liberda makes her third Thai Place into a palace.

Her Royal Empire 

Ann Liberda makes her third Thai Place into a palace.

used to eat a lot of lunches at the Bangkok Pavilion at 97th and Metcalf, where I had a favorite waitress: the slinky, attractive and witty Ann Liberda. I knew that Ann had been born in Thailand's Udon Thani province, that she had been a beautician and that she'd moved to the United States in 1975.

One day I went in for lunch and discovered that she had quit the restaurant and seemingly vanished. A year or so later, though, she called to tell me she had opened her own restaurant. When I'd been a waiter, the last thing I wanted was to open my own place, so it never occurred to me that Ann had ambitions beyond hauling plates of tiger-cry beef and spicy fried rice. I hurried to check out her first Thai Place, and my heart sank at the sight of the dreary paneled dining room. But Ann's food was excellent, and her unique personality -- think the Thai version of Anjelica Huston -- made the suburban location an instant draw. (It soon eclipsed the Bangkok Pavilion in popularity.)

"The Thai Place was the only reason I ever went to Johnson County," says former restaurateur Charlene Welling, who cofounded the original Classic Cup in Westport with her ex-husband, Dan. "That's why I'm so tickled that Ann's opened her newest restaurant in our old location."

The brand new Thai Place, the third in Liberda's growing empire, is the fanciest yet, with crisp white tablecloths, heavy blue-and-white china and gilded religious icons. Hanging on the wall are two huge framed portraits of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his mate, Queen Sirikit.

"That's not how they look now," the waitress whispered on our first visit to the new restaurant. "They're both much older and fatter now."

Who isn't? Well, Ann Liberda for one. She hasn't aged at all, despite operating three restaurants in far-flung locations. It doesn't hurt that she has plenty of help from her children. "My son Ted is overseeing the Westport location, and Michael is in charge of the Blue Springs location," she says. "I'm pretty much at the Overland Park space, and I'm planning to open another restaurant in the next six or seven months, to be managed by my daughter Chiara."

Liberda's ambitions have made her the city's best-known Thai restaurateur, so it's not surprising that the two-month-old Westport location is her own personal Bang Pa-in Palace. Her imported fabrics and artwork have erased all memories of the ill-fated final redecoration of the Westport Classic Cup. (Inexplicably, the post-Welling owners had transformed it from a stylish urban bistro into Dracula's castle). On all three of my visits, the sunny dining room and the outdoor patio were packed with Midtown hipsters of all ages and colors: lithe young lovers, middle-aged sophisticates, sun-bronzed gay youth in matching Dolce & Gabanna sandals and a quartet of beautiful Asian teenagers.

Happily, chef Ted Liberda's food is as visually stimulating as the décor and the patrons. The 23-year-old culinary school graduate is putting a more fashionable spin on his mother's signature dishes and has added a separate page of rotating specials to the familiar menu every week. One of his recent innovations is Kiew wan Spaghetti, a Thai twist on the traditional Italian spaghetti noodle. (The name "translates as green and sweet," Ted says.) He drenches the pasta in a light sauce of fresh basil and a gingery green curry paste, then tosses it with vegetables, grilled chicken and shrimp. It was a perfect summer supper on one oppressively hot Friday night.

The same evening, my friend Dennis marveled at the sweetness and fire in the chopped meat and chilies that make up Ann's Mother-in-Law Beef. "Are you sure this is 'mild'?" he asked me before taking a gulp of ice water. I reminded him of something Liberda had told me years ago: "Americans think mild means no spice. The Thai think mild means medium hot."

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