Doesn't everybody? When Linda described the stellar restaurants she visited, some of the details resonated: visually striking food, minimalist décor, theatrical lighting. It sounded a little like Red Snapper.
Unlike Shanghai restaurants, however, Red Snapper offers a pan-Asian menu which is very hot in the States right now. Why settle for an old-fashioned Cantonese joint when you can choose from a more imaginative menu that mixes up traditional Cantonese, Szechwan and Hunan dishes with Vietnamese, Thai and Korean fare?
That brings us to the Chao brothers, Max and Kua-Ching (better known as Casey). They immigrated to Kansas City from South Korea with their Chinese-born parents in 1979. Three years later, the Chaos' parents opened their first little Chinese restaurant, Peking, at 36th Street and Broadway. Max and Casey grew up cooking traditional Cantonese, Szechwan and Chinese-American dishes in the kitchen of that restaurant and, later, at the family's bigger, more elaborate New Peking Restaurant in Westport.
The Chao brothers later took over the New Peking from their parents and sold it in 2003 so they could follow their own divergent culinary paths. For more than two years, Max operated Max's Noodles & More, a modest pan-Asian venue near 17th Street and Main; now he's opening a Hawaiian barbecue joint (see My Big Fat Mouth, page 38). Casey had a grander vision and poured some serious money into a new strip-mall space just north of the Ward Parkway shopping center.
When I first reviewed the Red Snapper ("The Yuan and the Restless," December 4, 2003), I worried that the fortunes of Casey's slickly designed bistro might be hurt by its location the neighborhood hadn't seen a successful restaurant since Costello's Greenhouse in the 1980s. There was also a problem with the name: It sounded too much like a lowbrow seafood chain. In fact, when I invited my friend Judy and her daughter, Carrie, to join me for dinner, I had to explain that Red Snapper had no connection to Red Lobster.
Most customers have figured that out by now, and Casey's place has found its groove. Gone are a couple of early menu items, including the Mandarin meatball and the Peking duck. Servers are more polished and professional (with fewer piercings). And instead of being cursed by its location, Red Snapper has thrived. "It's our neighborhood restaurant," says a friend of mine who lives in nearby Leawood. "It's five minutes from our house, and we can make a great meal out of soup and several appetizers."
I'm not one of those people who can rationalize eating an appetizer and calling it dinner. But Red Snapper has a couple of options that might change my mind particularly skewers of lusciously caramelized beef tenderloin, and spring rolls plumped up with shrimp and chopped basil. I have friends and co-workers who swear by this restaurant's signature rangoon, a wonton-wrapped pouch of cream cheese and smoked salmon, but three years after I first sampled this concoction, it still doesn't taste much different from the crab version it's all about the cream cheese.
I ran a bit hot and sour on Casey Chao's food back in 2003, but I'm hotter for it now. Chao still mixes up familiar Chinese-American favorites (General Tso's chicken, orange-flavored beef, lo mein) with a couple of Thai dishes, a few Japanese-inspired offerings and a Korean stir-fry. The execution, however, is vastly superior.