Kansas Citians who are hungry for Southeast Asian food don't have to drive as far north as Tasty Thai.

North by Northeast 

Kansas Citians who are hungry for Southeast Asian food don't have to drive as far north as Tasty Thai.

While it's news that Tasty Thai has opened out in the Northland's burgeoning suburbs, Kansas City's historic Northeast area has been the center for Southeast Asian cuisine for some time.

One of the city's best-known Vietnamese restaurants, the Kim Nguyen Deli, operated for more than a decade at 522 Campbell. The corner building is now home to the Vietnam Cafe (run by the owners of Vietnam Restaurant at 2200 W. 39th Street). The Vietnam Cafe's fare is similar to its predecessor's -- but what happened to Kim Nguyen?

Reader Judith Winn directed me to the new Kim on the block: Kim Son Vietnamese Restaurant at 315 Cherry. The three-week-old restaurant "has a new owner but the old chef from Kim Nguyen," according to the waitress, Thoa Nguyen. "Kim Son was the cook at the old place too."

I had dinner there on a soggy Friday night with a friend, and for the first hour we were the only customers, our voices competing with the noisy TV set perched at the bar (next to several vases of dead flowers) and a hyperactive kid who raced around the tables coughing his head off.

"Well," said my friend Zodie, unfolding a paper napkin into her lap, "this is cozy."

There's not much in the way of ambience, but the food is good. We shared plastic plates full of vegetarian spring rolls, which weren't really vegetarian, they were herbal: rice noodles and cilantro wrapped in soft rice-paper wrappers. Zodie, who is a vegetarian, enjoyed the fresh vegetables sauteed in yellow curry, while I inhaled the beef sauteed with fresh lemon grass. There's not a dish on the menu that costs more than nine bucks.

Farther east, there's the tidy Tay Ho Restaurant (3616 Independence Avenue), which shares a big blue-gray building with an Asian video store. A refrigerated case at one end of the narrow dining room is filled with little frosted pastries and sweet rolls, while over the counter near the kitchen there's a framed portrait of a mustachioed man swathed with a garland of fabric flowers.

Some political hero, I wondered? "It's a Catholic priest," said the waitress, as she brought me a plate of three superb pork-and-vegetable Vietnamese egg rolls and a bowl of vinegary fish sauce. My other appetizer choices included fried shrimp wrapped around slivers of sugarcane.

The menu -- four stained, photocopied pages stapled together -- also lists traditional Vietnamese noodle soups, vermicelli and rice dishes, and a couple of specials (roasted quail and a seafood hot pot).

As I ate my lunch to the soundtrack of a wailing songstress from Saigon who sounded remarkably like Madonna, I watched the restaurant's owner sit in front of the pastry case, quietly slicing up big green kale leaves. He occasionally exchanged words with the only other customer, a young Asian man smoking cigarettes and drinking thick, sweet Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk.

For a moment, it was easy to believe I wasn't in Kansas City anymore.

One cafe really isn't in Kansas City anymore: The short-lived Decadenza (323 E. 55th Street) closed its tasteful doors at the end of February after its partners "came to a difference of opinion that couldn't be resolved" says co-owner Dennis Howell. Crestwood Shops spokesperson Jim Lott predicts a new restaurateur will take over the location "sooner than you think."

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