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Pad-Thai gets points for effort but needs to tighten up

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There are two reserved parking spaces in front of the six-month-old Pad-Thai Restaurant in Overland Park. They are simply labeled "Thai." A strip of blue tape covers the word "Tasty."

Don't drive away confused. There's still plenty of tasty Thai cuisine served inside this sunny storefront, but the tenant has changed. In January, Vouglas Palzer took over the space — previously occupied by the Johnson County outpost of the Tasty Thai restaurant (the Northland restaurant is still open) — and renamed it.

You might feel compelled to order pad Thai at a place called Pad-Thai. It's Thailand's best-known dish, after all — the popular stir-fried noodle dish that's typically tossed with tamarind juice, red chili peppers, bean sprouts, eggs, fish sauce, coriander and lime juice, then garnished with crushed peanuts. And Palzer's version of the namesake dish is excellent here — fresh, light, seductively fiery. But some of the other dishes command their own attention.

Before the food, however, come some distractions, because Pad-Thai has some quirks to work through. During dinner service, the tables are set with black cloth napkins, but the flatware is rolled into paper napkins. I wondered whether the cloth napkin was there for purely decorative purposes, like the fresh red rose on each of the glass-topped tables. I used the cloth and also the paper.

I needed a couple of extra paper napkins while eating the sticky, peppery basil chicken wings. They weren't the meatiest wings I'd ever tasted, and I wish they'd been crispier, but the spicy glaze was delicious. They provided a strong counterpoint to the cool, soft spring rolls, packed nearly to bursting with ribbons of carrots and enough chopped greens that the row of sliced rolls looked like an unmowed lawn.

A friend of mine insisted on a bowl of lightly steamed edamame (the dullest starter on Earth), which came salted like pretzels. I found myself eating it anyway, because the kitchen's timing can be off. The pot stickers I sampled had been steamed a little too quickly, and the "Royal Thai" chicken had been cooked until it bordered on jerky. All of the ginger-garlic sauce in the kingdom couldn't have restored the meat's moistness.

There are unexpected victories, though. I'm thinking mainly of the pineapple fried rice, a dish I always avoid unless under duress. The friend with me on one visit to Pad-Thai insisted on the dish over the more traditional basil fried rice, believing it might cool us off after the kick-ass-hot laab salad we'd shared. Fair point — the mound of sautéed pork on that salad, decked out with chopped red onion, mint and cilantro, was aggressively seasoned. ("medium Thai hot" on this menu is described as "Tabasco is no sweat.")

We ended up bickering over the chunks of pineapple, which I was convinced had come from a can because they were so soft. My friend insisted that, despite the convenience, canned pineapple is too expensive to go into a fried-rice dish like this one. (The server told us it was a secret.) Either way, it's refreshing and even kind of sexy, with all that succulent pineapple, chewy cashews, raisins and fragrant garlic cloves.

A dish that needs to be a little more arousing is the gang phet ped yarng. Under a red coconut-curry sauce, the pieces of roasted duck (tucked in with pineapple, cashews and astringent bell peppers) are a tad too chewy.

Further still from an aphrodisiac is the restaurant's "frozen coconut custard." I asked the server to describe the creation. "Well, it's not frozen," he said. "We heat it up."

And suddenly there it was before us, little slices of pale brown something. The consistency was that of grainy tofu, and it was just about as tasteless. There's coconut ice cream, too, just as bland, melting away under flakes of fresh coconut. The ice creams here — there also are green tea, mango and purple-yam flavors — melt quickly because they're sided with two bananas, encased in wonton wrappers and fried until the banana dissolves into a white-hot custardy mush that spurts out (potentially dangerously) at the first bite. Eat at your own risk.

The crew is trying hard to put out a consistent product, even if you can too easily sense the kitchen's chaos when the intimate dining room fills up. There was only a single waiter on each of my visits to the restaurant (never a good sign in my book), and he also appeared to be the only person in the place with a solid command of English. (Solid enough, anyway, to greet tables with a slightly premature "Are you ready to order?") Six months in, a restaurant should be able to deliver the right pot stickers (I wanted fried but got steamed) at the right moment (they were lukewarm).

Pad-Thai isn't perfection. But it's still one of the few exotic-leaning restaurants this far south into Johnson County, a zone of look-alike mini-mansions and strip malls and discount retailers and the odd "cupcakery." Palzer may not get around to redoing those parking signs anytime soon, but if he irons out some of the place's kinks, he can save me a spot in the lot.

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