Plenty of things attracted me to Hot Basil, restaurateur Lee Chai's cozy little Thai dining room hidden away in a remote corner of the Rosana Square Shopping Center. Most of all, the name: It's short, clever and sexy, and without the typical florid touch that turns any Asian restaurant into a garden, a palace, a pavilion or a lotus blossom.
My friend Carol Ann thinks Hot Basil sounds like an X-rated film, and there is — who knew? — a porn star who goes by the single name of Basil. "I was thinking more along the lines of Basil St. John," Carol Ann said, referring to a dashing cartoon character with a black eye patch, the longtime romantic interest of newspaper heroine Brenda Starr. The star of Overland Park's Hot Basil is just the aromatic herb, a staple of Thai cooking that's used generously in many of this restaurant's dishes, along with pungent ginger, fiery peppers, sweet coconut and complicated curries. Like most of its Thai contemporaries, Hot Basil offers each dish in three versions: mild, medium and hot. But here, medium packs a wallop, and hot can be positively searing.
Not everyone agrees with me on this point. A friend who craves spicy fare thinks that Hot Basil's cuisine could be hotter. "I have to add chili sauce to everything," he says. But his tastes run to the peculiar in my book — he's also one of those people who puts ketchup on everything. That's when condiments go from being a seasoning to an obsession.
I love fiery dishes, too, but I want to taste all the seductive flavors in a dish such as panang curry, not just the dominating hot notes. I also remember a time, more than a decade ago, when a very different owner of a Johnson County Thai restaurant told me that his patrons complained that even the mild dishes were too spicy or had too much garlic or too many Thai chilies. Hey, you can't please everybody.
But Lee Chai, a native of Thailand's Nakhon Sawan (the name translates as Heavenly City) sure tries to please. Chai used to work with Ann Liberda, founder of the Thai Place mini-empire of restaurants. Hot Basil is the first restaurant that he has opened on his own, and he frequently ventures out of the kitchen to talk to his customers and get their feedback. He's a little nervous: The four-month-old Hot Basil isn't easily visible from 119th Street (my friend Christopher got lost trying to find it one night) and occupies a storefront space that was, most recently, a lowbrow Middle Eastern buffet.
Hot Basil is pretty tiny, as local Thai restaurants go. The jade-green dining room has barely more than a dozen tables and a useless black tiki-style bar with little in it; Chai currently sells only wine and beer, although the modest wine list has some decent vintages. If you simply must have a martini with your phad Thai, you'll have to go to the liquor store next door and stir it up yourself in the parking lot.
The night I dined with Carol Ann, we debated over the starters on the menu. Menus, I should say, because Hot Basil has a few: the dinner menu, a vegetarian menu and a list of daily specials. A heavyset man at the next table had ordered the crispy dim sum plate from the daily specials; he had unabashed lust in his eyes as he gazed at the assortment of fried coconut shrimp, crab Rangoon, egg rolls and dumplings. It looked pretty tasty, but we opted for fat, soft spring rolls with bean sprouts, cilantro, cellophane noodles and a sprinkling of ground pork. They were good, but not spectacular like the jumble of Hot Basil chicken wings that were crispy, succulent, spicy and meaty all at once. (Chai insists that it's his mother's secret recipe.)