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.
Now, fresh cilantro, the pungent herb also known as coriander, is a staple ingredient in many of the dishes here, including the plump, superb spring rolls. I happen to be a fan of the herb, but I have friends who cringe at the very mention of the it, so they may find this menu difficult to negotiate. I encourage those with similar misgivings to consult the serving staff, most of whom are confident guides for diners with limitations (self-imposed and otherwise).
The menu gets that conversation started with an eye-catching warning, advising patrons who don't adore coconut milk to perhaps steer clear of the bowl of vermicelli and vegetables called Crazy Noodles. I enjoy coconut milk, but the server confirmed that even loving coconut milk may not be enough. Crazy Noodles has enough of the stuff to drive a person insane. She gently moved my attention to one of the top-selling dishes at Lulu's: Drunken Noodles. The rice noodles in that entrée have been seductively seasoned with Thai basil, slivers of red and green peppers, lemon grass and crunchy circles of Chinese broccoli. Its popularity is entirely deserved.
I ordered the wok-tossed Drunken Noodles with fried tofu, and the soy cubes in my bowl were properly chewy, very tasty and steaming hot. On a previous visit, I had ordered another popular Thai dish, basil fried rice, with both tofu and chicken. The stir-fried chicken that night was a pleasing addition, and the tofu might have been its equal if every other cube hadn't been lukewarm or cold.
That's a relatively little culinary glitch here, and it happened the same night as the flying rice — clearly a cloudy day all around at Lulu's. The same evening, Bob took a bite of his Thai chicken wrap, made with a grilled tortilla, and complained that it wasn't so much dry as borderline dehydrated. Sure enough, all the peanut sauce in Bangkok couldn't have saved what was on his plate that night.
But even on a visit as error-pocked as that parking lot, my spicy red curry was fantastic. And the pad pet pak, with its swirl of threadlike vermicelli noodles dappled with vegetables, in a sauce that was just on the right shade of fiery, was first-rate.
Speaking of first-rate, let's go back to the ba'nh mi. It's not easy to find a great ba'nh mi sandwich on the Great Plains, but the one at Lulu's is a lulu. A baguette from Le Monde Bakery is split open, spread with Sriracha aioli, and crammed full of seasoned pork or chicken or a startlingly good paste of ground tofu (at once slightly grainy and memorably creamy).
Where Lulu's truly outclasses its rivals, though, is its marvelous dessert selection. There's traditional mango sticky rice and a "Rangoon" filled with cream cheese, banana and chocolate. But the surprise here is the array of ice creams created exclusively for the restaurant by Christopher Elbow. Anyone who follows Elbow's Glacé line should consider Lulu's a vital destination. A meal of spicy noodles rarely concludes with the simple but innovative elegance found in a bowl (four little scoops) of Thai basil ice cream or delicately seasoned cardamom-and-mango. Somewhere between uttering the complaint that I no longer craved ice cream and my first spoonful of creamy Glacé — with tart lemon grass and bits of candied ginger — I fell passionately in love with it.
Just when I thought my third visit to Monyakula's new Lulu's couldn't get any better, it did.