Just when I thought my dinner at Lulu's Thai Noodle Shop couldn't get any worse, it did.
My dining companions were already exasperated. Parking had been a minor crisis. The dining room's hard surfaces made conversation difficult and thinking impossible. And our young waitress's technique for maintaining focus seemed to be the willful ignorance of every table in her station except the one ready to pay the bill.
"I'm glad the new Lulu's is as awful as the old one," said my friend Bob as he cut into a steamed pork dumpling. A few minutes later, a server cleaning off the empty table next to ours whipped a cloth across the surface, spraying our table with rice. Bob put down his fork. "I rest my case."
But I wasn't ready to render a verdict, and after two more meals at the new Lulu's — this second Crossroads location is now actually 10 months old — I'm ready to testify for the defense.
Since moving, the restaurant has made across-the-board improvements over its previous quarters, around the corner at 333 Southwest Boulevard. And in this bigger, better space has come more — and better — food. But food was never the problem with Lulu's, and I'll come back to the menu in a moment.
The previous Lulu's was notorious for poor customer service, particularly after it first opened more than a decade ago. The pallid, skinny hipsters waiting tables in that dining room were lackadaisical or incompetent, or both. I had enough negative experiences as an everyday Crossroads lunchgoer that I vowed never to return. But then owner Malisa Monyakula moved to 2030 Central, forcing me to admit that it had been too long since I had tasted her cuisine. She has used the move to give her menu of Southeast Asian favorites a smart remodel. (Among other tweaks, it now includes extraordinary ba'nh mi sandwiches.)
Monyakula also seems to have permanently jostled loose those frustrating servers. On two of my three visits, the young women who worked my tables were smart, articulate and impressively knowledgeable about the menu (including which dishes appeared to be vegetarian but might contain shrimp paste or oyster sauce). Even better, they actually seemed to be enjoying their jobs, unlike the tattooed zombies who haunted the original space.
The dining room in this concrete-block structure, a former warehouse, is no place for the undead. It's bright and attractive and spacious, and some pockets within it — a smaller, turquoise-painted room is the best — are less noisy than others. And even at its loudest, Lulu's isn't as brain-scrambling as other area adherents of the increasingly prevalent school of high-sound-reflection design. (Oh, but the parking! The lot adjacent to the restaurant needs a MoDOT-level repaving job, right now. It's as cratered as the moon and a danger to ankles hardier than mine.)
Its remaining flaws notwithstanding, downtown Kansas City needs a place like Lulu's. With loft dwellers still moving into the surrounding neighborhood (there always seemed to be several young couples with small children in the room) and the Kauffman Performing Arts Center now open, Monyakula finds herself in a prime spot. And she knows it. Her kitchen moves at a brisker pace, and a well-trained front of the house has no trouble keeping up (most of the time).
The restaurant's newfound energy isn't pushy, though. On my first visit to Lulu's with an old friend, I enjoyed a leisurely paced dinner, starting with a sampler of four appetizers, which include crispy fried purses of crab Rangoon, which actually seemed to contain crab; Vietnamese spring rolls; and two kinds of dumplings. The pork dumplings were seasoned just right; the vegetable dumplings, filled with minced carrot, cabbage, spinach and cilantro, were addictive.