Chinese restaurants have been in Kansas City for nearly as long as locals have gone out to eat. Chinese settlers arrived here in the 19th century as railroad employees or laborers, and some stayed in the river town to open their own small businesses. As far back as 1900, the city directory listed several Chinese eateries, and soon the city's fanciest Asian restaurant opened: King Joy Lo.
If there's a Chinese restaurant with a well-established brand in Kansas City today, it's Bo Lings, the best recognized Chinese-food name in Kansas City since King Joy Lo. I've met many, many people who won't go out for Cantonese or Szechuan dishes anywhere else.
Owners Richard and Theresa Ng opened their first dining operation at 90th Street and Metcalf, in Overland Park, in 1983. Four years later came a second, in the Board of Trade Building on the Country Club Plaza. Today, their six-restaurant franchise is a mini empire — one with a new flagship on the other side of the Plaza.
That dominance has come with certain costs. The Ngs' expansion, during which they've maintained a hands-on presence in each kitchen, has always meant long working hours for the husband-and-wife team. "I think we're working longer hours now," says Richard Ng, who turned 56 this month, coinciding with the Plaza Bo Lings' move across Brush Creek. "Our parents raised our children," he adds. "We were just so busy."
Beyond that big brand name, of course, the Ngs' restaurants have a solid reputation for clean kitchens and dining rooms, efficient service, and an accessible menu that unites Cantonese dishes with American-Chinese creations (moo goo gai pan, containing mushrooms and sliced chicken; sweet-and-sour chicken; and — by request, anyway — egg foo yong).
"For our new Plaza location," Richard Ng says, "we've combined our two menus for the first time, melding the popular traditional dishes with the Chinese dishes that were mostly only ordered by Asian patrons."
That decision finds visual illustration inside the two-month-old Bo Lings in the Plaza's Skelly Building. It feels not like a Chinese restaurant but rather a multicultural dining palace reflecting culinary influences as diverse as Vietnamese, Thai and French. This is, for one thing, the first Bo Lings with a pastry kitchen, where bakers whip up feather-light layer cakes slathered with gloriously rich buttercream frosting. That's an extraordinary delight for diners who, like me, see no reward in ending a meal with bean-paste buns and a fortune cookie.
"Fancy desserts are relatively unknown in China because there's so little dairy in our culinary culture," Ng says. "But Chinese-Americans love cake. We went into the custom pastry business because we had so many requests for wedding cakes." I'm all for the marriage of culinary cultures if it means finishing off a meal of spicy Beijing crispy beef with a big slab of mocha or lemon layer cake as pretty and tasty as anything I'd find at Andre's Confiserie Suisse.
You get a look at those cakes in a refrigerated case near the entrance to this onetime business-office suite. It's one of several glamorous touches, sending a contemporary, Las Vegas echo through this big space. As though in answer to the King Joy Lo legacy, the tile floors here gleam like marble. There also are thick glass panels bright with theatrical LED illumination, strikingly modern chairs in bold Mandarin red, and granite-topped tables. Ornate screens close off the private dining rooms, a palatial change from the drab openness of the old Board of Trade space.
Behind the rich scenes here, the Ngs' two children, now young adults, have taken their places in the family business. "Rebecca handles catering and staff training at the Plaza Bo Lings, and Raymond is wearing a number of different hats," Ng says. And in the kitchen at the Plaza is another new face, a young chef named James Clark — Rebecca Ng's husband. He's learning the family business in a trial by fire.
The first time I stopped at the new Plaza venue for dinner, I ordered one of its menu additions, a plate of sliced tea-smoked duck. The menu promised puffy steamed yeast buns, slivers of cool cucumber and sticky plum sauce. It sounded divine. What arrived before me, however, was a fowl overcooked to the point of petrifaction.
Clark didn't prepare this duck, but he'd seen it being carried through the dining room (like a rare fossil being presented to a group of archeologists). He was at my table in a flash, offering to bring a different dish. But I wanted tea-smoked duck, having heard Richard Ng lovingly describe the long preparation process: the way the breast is marinated in salt and spices overnight and then oven-smoked, layered with rice, tea and spices for at least three hours; the way the bird is then taken out and steamed and, finally, roasted to make a light, crispy, golden crust.
"We're still working out kinks in this kitchen," Clark said. So no duck that night. But when I returned to taste the duck again, it was wonderful, as moist and delicious as I'd imagined.
That first night, I set aside the duck and tried another new dish: the Polynesian-influenced fresh pineapple fried rice, served in a hollowed-out pineapple shell. I prefer the vegetarian version of this creation, in which the fried rice holds pineapple, scallions, carrots, onions and cashews. As vegetarian options go, this one is a little Disneyland — the more serious meatless items are better served with curry vegetables or one of the tofu dishes — but sometimes pretty and fruity are in order.
Another new addition to the Bo Lings menu sounds meatless enough: home-style chive dumplings in a translucent rice wrapper. But more than chives and ginger are in this pocket: bits of roasted pork and shrimp (unmentioned in the menu I saw). It's delectable enough that I'd sneak around with it again.
And I'm not quibbling over a few unexpected morsels of flesh. This relocated, updated Bo Lings is the culmination of everything that the Ng family has dreamed about for decades. A limited but deeply satisfying dim sum menu is now available every day. (The more formal affair, with the rolling carts, remains on Saturday and Sunday.) The featured dishes are beautifully presented and still affordable. You want cheap fried rice? Go to a buffet. Want luxury? Go to Bo Lings. This one manages to evoke the best of the Vegas strip and the Ming Dynasty at the same time. Finally, you can have your cake and eat your tofu, too.