That's why my friends Cynthia and Lorraine practically insisted on driving the night we ventured out to Bua Thai, the snazzy year-old restaurant located a block or so off the Interstate 70 exit for Highway 7. They knew that if I were driving, we'd wind up in Sedalia.
But now that I've learned a few things about Blue Springs, I'm fascinated by the 126-year-old community, which was named for the freshwater springs that flow or used to flow, anyway into the Little Blue River. I still haven't seen the historic part of town, where the Dillingham-Lewis home is located. That house, which turns 100 this spring, is now a museum and was once home to liquor-hating Narra Lewis. Lewis was Missouri's counterpart to the infamous Carrie Nation, the first tavern terrorist, who took a hatchet and smashed up a bar in Kiowa, Kansas, in 1900 (the first of her many attacks around the country). Lewis stuck closer to home and used her little hatchet only once, causing havoc in a Blue Springs saloon. That's a story that's still part of local lore today.
Lewis' anti-alcohol activity didn't resonate, because modern-day Blue Springs has plenty of watering holes. There's even a well-stocked bar at the back of Bua Thai for patrons who might want to accompany their phad graprow beef with a cocktail maybe the "Thai-Tanic," made with vodka, melon liqueur, triple sec, and pineapple juice.
I was shivering on the night we stepped out of the cold and into the maroon-colored Bua Thai dining room. I needed something hot and soothing, such as the slightly vanilla-scented Thai tea. There's no tea quite like it, this orange-colored blend of finely cut Chinese black tea and a powder made from crushed star anise pods. The star anise gives the brew just a hint of licorice, cinnamon and vanilla. Some purists insist that it be prepared Bangkok-style, with sweetened condensed milk, but I drink it straight.
I was dining with two tall women, and I'm not exactly petite, so we had to pass on a nice, padded booth when we realized that every single one of them had been built to accommodate two healthy adults or four extremely small children. I like to think of myself as being more liberal and flexible in other matters, but I draw the line at uncomfortable seating arrangements.
After we settled around a cloth-covered table and gave the joint a proper once-over, I could understand why the seating (but not the dinner portions, thank God) was designed for the slender physique. The restaurant's handsome owner, Teerapha "Don" Chaiprathum, is almost as thin as a soaking-wet Scott Weiland.
Chaiprathum worked as a waiter in this restaurant in its previous incarnation, as one of the Liberda family's Thai Place restaurants. When Ann Liberda put the business up for sale in 2005, Chaiprathum bought it, gave the interior a makeover and changed the name. "Bua," he explained to me, "is the Thai word for lotus flower."
The Bua Thai menu, however, is nearly a Siamese twin of the one used by the four Thai Place restaurants, with some slight name changes. The dish known as King & Ann chicken at the Thai Place is King & I chicken here. The Thai Place catfish has been recast as the Bua Thai catfish, and the combination appetizer plate called the Far East Trio at Ann Liberda's restaurants is called the Three Kings in Blue Springs. To Chaiprathum's credit, Bua Thai maintains the same high culinary standards of its predecessor. The food at Bua Thai is visually pleasing and delicious.
Lorraine, Cynthia and I felt like royalty sharing the Three Kings plate, which was heaped with three fat, soft spring rolls, three wonton-wrapped shrimp, and three ungreasy and splendidly crispy egg rolls, which Cynthia insisted were "the best in the city." Our server brought out a trio of sauces and a rigid set of rules: "The sweet-and-sour is for the egg rolls, the peanut is for the spring rolls, and the chili sauce is for the shrimp," he said. Or was it the other way around? It didn't matter. I recklessly spooned peanut sauce on the shrimp wrap and dunked the spring roll into the chili sauce (which wasn't very fiery).
Lorraine ordered the seafood phad Thai, a "signature item" on this menu (and on the Thai Place menus, too), which was generously laden with shrimp, scallops, mussels and crabmeat. She even turned up a stray piece of squid in there. Cynthia surprised us by ordering the catfish, which can be cooked in either a sweet basil sauce or a red curry. She chose the latter and was impressed by the presentation: The crispy fried fillets were served in a fish-shaped dish and slathered with peppers, Thai basil and mild red curry made with coconut milk.
I felt slightly theatrical, so I requested the King & I chicken and got positively woozy on the rum-marinated breast meat, sautéed with mushrooms, ginger and garlic.
There's no coconut ice cream here, alas. The dessert list was limited to sticky rice with fresh mango (which sounded too healthy) and fried bananas (which didn't). Cynthia wanted the bananas, and we all marveled at what came out of the kitchen: three bananas, swathed in sheaths of wonton, flash-fried and served with ice cream. "It's more like a state fair-style fried treat than something exotic," Cynthia said.
A couple of nights later, I returned to Bua Thai finding it very easily in my own wheels. I brought my friend Bob, who never can decide if he really likes Thai cuisine. He gave a thumbs up to Chaiprathum's joint, however, because there were menu items that sounded practically American to him such as a house salad. At Bua Thai, a traditional iceberg lettuce salad gets a stylish makeover with slices of mushroom, delicate ears of baby corn, bits of broccoli, curls of julienned carrots, a dusting of crushed peanuts and a splash of pale-pink vinaigrette. Bob ate every bite, then greedily snagged two of my cream-cheese summer rolls the same soft, rice-noodle-wrapped spring rolls stuffed with chopped vegetables, but with a dollop of cream cheese, too.
Bob impulsively ordered the most expensive dinner on the menu: East Meets West. He needed only to see the words steak, shrimp and scallops in the description of the dish. He was thrilled with this Thai version of surf 'n' turf. On half of the platter was a mound of marinated, chopped beef steak, sautéed with carrots, basil and mushrooms; on the other side was a bowl of silky peanut panang curry with plump scallops and pink shrimp hidden in its amber depths. "It's absolutely wonderful," Bob said as he dipped bits of steak into the peanut sauce. (He had polished off the seafood already.) "The peanut curry is so addictive, I can't stop eating it."
I had quickly polished off my own dinner, a spicy basil stir-fry made with chicken, tofu, sweet onion, slices of green and red peppers, and slivers of bamboo shoots. It was more gingery than spicy, but excellent.
We ate too much to even consider dessert, so we hopped back in the car. In a few minutes, I was back on I-70, heading west. As we passed busy Independence Center, Bob asked, "Did you know that there's a Hooters out here?"
I didn't, but I bet the ghost of Narra Lewis is shaking her little hatchet out there somewhere. If the bottles start rattling at the Bua Thai bar, don't say I didn't warn you.