You can thank popular franchise operations like the Cheesecake Factory, T.G.I. Friday's and even IHOP for expanding our American perception of international dining. In the 1960s, America's best-loved dining chain, Howard Johnson's, stuck to the tried-and-true: fried chicken, broiled steaks, chicken potpie. As corporate chains expanded, competition mandated that restaurants accommodate a wider array of tastes. Ethnic food went from an exotic frontier to a mainstay on laminated menus. By the 1970s, Kansas City upstart Houlihan's was serving dishes that customers had to learn to pronounce: escargot, quiche, crepes.
Generations later, an offshoot of that development is the restaurant that attempts two distinct cuisines. The idea is to offer twice as many choices — not always good choices, but you get the idea — to patrons who might otherwise argue about what they want. Mom craves Hawaiian chicken, but Dad wants tacos al pastor? They used to flip a coin, with the loser pouting. Now they can drive to Eudora.
In this small Kansas town, about 35 minutes southwest of KC, the Ramirez family has operated the Jasmin Restaurant for more than a decade, serving Chinese and Mexican dishes.
Not to be outdone, the traditional Chinese-American restaurant known for years as the Golden Leaf has changed its name to Jasmine Thai and added Thai dishes to the Chinese staples. There's no connection between the two restaurants, even if both serve lemon chicken and egg drop soup, but I found myself at both last week as though driven by fortune — the kind found in a cookie.
At Jasmine Thai, there's a large, gilded Buddha head mounted on the wall of the dining room, gazing beatifically at the customers. It's a fitting metaphor for the restaurant, where everyone seems eager to respond to your every wish. Are you allergic to nuts? What about eggs, MSG, gluten or seafood? Just say the word and one of the soft-spoken servers will make sure the kitchen eliminates any trace of the offending allergen from your order.
There are free refills on soft drinks and iced tea at Jasmine Thai, but not on the vanilla-scented hot tea or the thick, milky Vietnamese coffee. One of the employees is always around to mix up a cocktail — there's a long list of specialty drinks — but something is lost in translation. A "mojito martini" turns out to be neither of those basic cocktails but an ersatz variation on a traditional gimlet, without the fresh lime juice. The sugared rim, however, is welcome.
The Thai food is much better than the Chinese dishes here, but the greatest hits of both cuisines are evenly represented. The spicy basil wings on the list of starters are more glossy than crispy, thickly shellacked with a succulent garlic-basil sauce. The miniature garlic pork ribs, which my server suggested on one of my visits, were fried that day until every molecule of moisture had been removed. To call them crispy would be an understatement. These were petrified.
I foolishly allowed my dining companion to pick the Chinese entrée, and she ordered a dish — pan-fried noodles — that I didn't like even as a kid, when my mother would assemble the Chun King supermarket version. Jasmine Thai's version rises above what I remember being forced to eat, but it's still just a gloppy chicken-and-vegetable mess spooned over a jumble of tasteless hard noodles that stick up from the plate like deadly quills. Next time, I'll insist on at least a coin toss.
The best thing I tried here was a silky Panang curry, from the Thai half of the menu, deliciously perfumed with kaffir lime, coconut milk and peanuts. Like most of the dishes here, though, it includes chopped green bell pepper as an ingredient — an intrusion, in this case. If that vegetable isn't your thing, then I recommend developing a quick green-pepper allergy to report to your server. Green peppers play such an important role in this restaurant's kitchen that the only dish that doesn't have them is, I think, the chocolate-mousse rangoon.
There's not an overabundance of green peppers at the Jasmin, in Eudora, but there is an actual Jasmin: a pretty teenager who wears braces and works with her parents at the family's 13-year-old restaurant. "They named the restaurant after me," she announced to our table before handing us menus.
It has become commonplace at Chinese buffets to offer a few Mexican dishes, but this is the first restaurant I'd ever visited where I found a wide array of both Mandarin dishes and Mexican combo plates.
The emphasis on the latter seemed to back up a friend's advice. "The Mexican food is much better than the Chinese," the friend had told me. But Jasmin's owner, J. Ramirez, has serious Chinese-restaurant experience. "He used to work at the Panda & Plum Garden in Lawrence," his daughter told me. "Before we moved here."
Inside its long, narrow storefront, Jasmin's dining room is painted a buttercream yellow, with a selection of sombreros and a colorful serape mounted on one wall and, across the room, one of those dramatic Asian-inspired murals made of molded plastic with gilded dragons flailing their spiky tails. It's a weird little restaurant, and it asks you to start making decisions before you even see the menu, offering a choice of cloth napkins or paper.
Unfurling my cloth napkin across my lap, I made up my mind to go full train wreck and order both hot-and-sour soup and a side of guacamole. The former was very good, and the latter was very fresh (including, yes, chopped green pepper). For $4.50, though, I expected more than a dollop of the stuff.
Jasmin is one of the few dining options in Eudora (population about 6,200), if you don't count Sonic. No surprise, then, that it does an impressive carryout business. I saw plenty of people arrive in the dining room, and the majority of them picked up orders.
My chile relleno dinner was just fine: two fat green peppers (just where I wanted them this time), stuffed with molten queso under an airy, crispy battered crust. It's as close to a vegetarian meal as you'll find on the Mexican menu here (the refried beans here are made with vegetable oil). There are more meatless options on the Chinese side, but just barely: mixed vegetables, tofu with mixed vegetables, and tofu with mixed vegetables in spicy sauce.
Neither side of the menu is what you'd call elaborate, and the Chinese dishes veer toward the predictable: General Tso's chicken, sweet-and-sour pork, pepper steak. The spiciness index is dialed down to a mere trace, as though you might add salsa. The cashew shrimp, however, is quite tasty, as long as you don't accidentally spoon any of it on your cheese enchilada.
Now if only some enterprising restaurateur could come up with a venue that served nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate-mousse layer cake.