Chinese restaurants have had a place on the local dining scene for at least a century.
Even the young Ernest Hemingway spent considerable time during his Kansas City Star apprenticeship in 1917-18 making his way through the long menu of a downtown Chinese spot. He knew there was variety beyond chow mein, and he was impressed by, though not much in love with, the many ways sea slugs were prepared and served. (“Even now,” he wrote a few years later, “the word sea slug makes me shudder.”)
Today we have our dominant local Chinese chain, Bo Ling’s, which long ago set a standard for premium Asian dining here and for its weekend dim sum brunches.
And we have a wide array of modest and casual neighborhood places that serve mostly Americanized fare from various Chinese regional and pan-Asian cuisines. Everybody knows sweet-and-sour pork and General Tso’s chicken, right?
You won’t find either of those dishes on the long and deep menu at the ABC Cafe, which opened about a year and a half ago in a small, bright storefront in Overland Park. What you will find are many dishes, well-made and bursting with flavor, that hardly ever show up elsewhere in town. It’s primarily traditional — and authentic — Cantonese food without the American compromises made by generations of Chinese restaurants, owner Cindy Cheung told me after my recent visits to the restaurant.
Cheung and her husband, ABC’s chef Jackie Lee, are natives of Hong Kong, and he honed his culinary skills in that cosmopolitan city over many years before immigrating to the United States in 1990.
Chinese TV shows play silently on flat-screen tubes. Large cards featuring menu additions and specials line the lemon-yellow walls. One of the restaurant’s immediate attractions: dim sum all the time. That’s right. It’s not just for brunch anymore. ABC’s eight-page spiral-bound menu offers a couple of dozen small-plate dishes ($2.88 each), plus some larger appetizers (mostly $5.88), an easy sampler allowing diners to try new things and graze widely anytime of the day or night.
I was impressed by the variety of tastes and the execution — curry beef puffs (stuffed pastries), steamed pig’s feet, stuffed eggplant, shrimp dumplings and even a little bean-curd puff with a sweetened filling that suggests you might want to have it as a dessert. Turnip cake in XO sauce ramped up a dim sum regular — squares of mashed and fried turnip — with a flavorful sauce enhanced by bits of ham, dried shrimp, soy, pepper and lettuce.
A fish ball and lettuce soup attested to a delicate simplicity that defines many of ABC’s dishes. The ground fish spheres swam in a light, clear broth with accents of cilantro, green onion and lettuce slivers. “This is really fresh,” said my constant companion, She Who Is Not Easily Pleased.
I tried steamed red snapper, a steamed flounder and a salt-and-pepper flounder to get a sense of the freshness of the fish. The snapper was delicious, tender and lightly dressed in a fragrant, slightly tangy sauce. The steamed flounder, covered with shredded bok choy, was also light and pleasantly flavored. The salt-and-pepper flounder involved lightly breaded and seasoned fried strips of fish, piled with greens and served over the flash-fried carcass of the fish. By my taste, the fried version was a little overdone, and I much preferred the straightforward sumptuousness of the steamed versions.
For heavier fare, a beef curry stew hot pot was dense, dark and richly flavored, though some diners might be put off by the chewier strips of what seemed to be tendon (more nutritious than chunks of fat!).
Vegetarian friends found much to savor on ABC’s menu. A simple plate of vegetable fried rice — fried so lightly it looked merely steamed — included bits of bok choy, black mushroom, carrots and peas. A large serving of perfectly steamed and sautéed Chinese broccoli greens was brilliantly colored and perfumed with garlic and oil.
A small selection of desserts put a refreshing cap on our meals. Plates of coconut pastries, served hot, provided nicely sweet and light bites, and a bowl of smooth and tangy mango pudding, topped by chunks of the fruit, brought smiles all around.
Friends initially found — and raved about — ABC Café. Our recent meals confirmed that fine and unexpected culinary experiences can be found in the most humble of places. Places where the food is honest, the connecting event of family and friendship, and the rewarding object of adventure and surprise. With or without chow mein and sea slugs.