Downtown Overland Park is a refreshing stretch of the unexpected. Sitting just off Metcalf Avenue, the neighborhood has become a culinary enclave, with a bustling farmers market, the Culinary Center of Kansas City and a selection of food-centric shops and restaurants.
One of the newer additions, Lemongrass Thai Cuisine, is akin to a trip across the world. Enter its unassuming storefront on 80th Street and you’ll find a surprisingly large restaurant and bar with vivid colors, curving design lines and the fragrance of Thai spices.
On first glance, the sizable menu looks as though it might be making a few culinary detours, but the restaurant is known for traditional curries, salads, soups and noodle dishes.
My first visit was with a group of experienced Thai food eaters, all eager to sample a newer addition to Kansas City’s growing trail of Thai cuisine. Being a weeknight, the restaurant had a few small groups of diners but was not what you would call crowded.
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This worked to our advantage, as the restaurant’s owner, Larry Thephachanh, patiently waited on us and answered questions with knowledge and advice that gave us genuine insight rather than salesmanship.
We started with appetizers, ranging from the ubiquitous spring roll to crab Rangoon, chicken satay and two of Lemongrass’ more popular starters, Tiger Wings and Tiger Ribs. Each appetizer had a dipping sauce or two, and all were homemade, which made for an invigorating take on what is standard fare at most restaurants.
The homemade peanut sauce was a particularly pleasing balance of salty and sweet, with chunks of roasted peanuts throughout. It was a stark contrast to the sweetened peanut butter version that is found too often elsewhere. The sauce did its job, adding a savory richness that paired perfectly with the plump shrimp, delicate rice paper and noodles of the spring roll.
The Tiger Wings and Tiger Ribs also were fine representations of run-of-the-mill appetizer selections, fried and seasoned properly, though the ribs could have benefited from a higher meat-to-bone ratio.
The menu is large, with appetizers, soups, pan-fried noodles and curries. Each has more than a few traditional selections. The salad menu might be one of the most interesting parts, with a host of dishes you don’t see on many other menus.
At Thephachanh’s suggestion, I ordered the Thai crispy rice salad, Khao Naen Todd. It was made of broken rice balls stuffed with red curry paste and tossed with ground chicken and a melange of Thai spices. Lettuce cups were used to eat the mixture.
The dish looked lovely, but it was the first taste that was captivating, with each bit of ginger, lime and lemongrass washing over the palate in equal but distinct waves.
As Thephachanh explained, Thai food is defined by balancing the flavors of sweet, spicy and bitter, which my dining companions and I agreed were executed in near-perfect harmony. The bolder flavors of the cuisine were found in our entree selections, highlighted by a Panang Shrimp Curry and a Pad Kee Mao.
The Panang curry was light and sweet, with a pleasantly spicy finish that tied each flavor of spice, vegetable and shrimp together. The curry was ordered medium spicy, and that’s exactly how it was delivered. This might seem obvious, but that range varies at many area Thai restaurants.
Traditionally a basic stir-fried rice noodle dish flavored with broccoli, egg and peppers, the Lemongrass version of Pad Kee Mao with beef was one of the better I’ve had. The strips of flank steak were seared and succulent, and even the noodles had the perfect kiss of heat and sear from the wok to build flavor and texture in equilibrium with the subtle sauce.
But above all, the Chinese broccoli in the dish spoke to a skill and attention to detail you rarely see. Each piece was lightly wilted yet undeniably tasting of the green vegetable, as were the stir-fried stems. Like a great film, the supporting players added to the drama rather than being mere background.
On another visit, my dining companions and I again found the dining room with few customers and were once more greeted with Thephachanh’s informative service with a smile.
I was happy to find the same deft touches, with that balance of sweet, spicy and bitter running throughout each dish. I had eyed the different iterations of papaya salad and was eager to see the Lemongrass version. Between the two styles offered, Thai and Laotian, we opted for the more pungent selection from Laos with shredded green beans, tomatoes and herbs. It was a fine dish, but the slightly sweeter Thai version would be the more pleasing to most palates, I image.
The Tom Kha coconut soup that followed was a different story. It is another dish you find on countless menus, but rarely done with any sense of nuance in flavor, often tasting like nothing more than a spicy bowl of coconut milk.
The version we were served was just the opposite, a concoction at once sweet and spicy with flavors of lemongrass, galanga, Kaffir lime and chilies, and with pleasingly strong and savory umami flavors on the back end. Simple can sometimes be the toughest thing to pull off, but this soup did it.
With such a large menu, it can be hard to know where to start. I found more traditional dishes to be the best bets, although I’d glanced at the light-up board of entree specials. It had some new offerings like crispy frog legs and others on the everyday menu, including the shiitake mushroom duck, which sounded too good to pass up.
Thephachanh explained the laborious process needed for the duck, first steaming it, then basting it and hanging it to dry before deboning it and cooking it to order, similar to how Chinese do Peking duck. This conversation was another insight into the kitchen’s preparation of food to precise specifications, which also extends to an admirable commitment to using local, seasonal vegetables throughout the menu.
The dish that arrived at the table was every bit as described, thick wedges of skin on, sliced duck breast with meaty bits of shiitake mushroom and baby bok choy. The duck was cooked through, but not overcooked, while the bok choy was again a delightful bite of stalk and leaves.
It’s those little things in each dish I had — properly cooked noodles and meat, balanced seasoning — that reminded me of what Italian trattorias strive to serve: simple but thoughtful food for a neighborhood.
Being less than a year old, Lemongrass obviously has tweaks to make to maximize its potential, beginning with quicker service and better utilization of space. There is a brightly lit full bar near the entrance, though I never saw a customer there, which can cause someone on the street to question whether the restaurant is open.
Neighborhood crowds fluctuate, even in a burgeoning food-centered area like downtown Overland Park, so it remains to be seen how attainable that goal is. But from any area of the city, Lemongrass is worth the drive.
Tyler Fox is a personal chef, Chow Town Blogger and freelance food writer for The Star.
7316 W. 80th St.
Food: ☆☆1/2 Despite a large menu, the best dishes are the more traditional offerings of soups, salads and noodles, which are well-executed and balanced takes on the classic sweet, spicy and bitter tastes of Thai food.
Service: ☆☆The restaurant is large without feeling cavernous, even when customers are sparse. While not necessarily distracting, the sound from two TVs mingles with background music.
Atmosphere: ☆☆ The service can be slow at times, even at slower hours, but the small staff is able and happy to explain ingredients and flavors, while recommending dishes to try.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 2:30-10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner menu 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday.
Entree average (including nightly specials): $$
Vegetarian options: Vegetarian egg rolls, vegetable tempura, fried tofu, vegetable soup. Many dishes contain fish sauce or nonvegetarian ingredients that can be omitted or substituted upon request to server.
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Parking: Street parking in front and Overland Park Farmers Market parking lot behind.
Kids: No separate kids menu, but consider egg rolls, crab Rangoon and noodle dishes.
Noise level: Average. Spacious dining room with high ceilings keeps sound at reasonable levels.
Reservations: By phone or through LemongrassKC.com. They also offer free delivery within four miles with a $25 minimum.
Star code: ☆ Fair, ☆☆ Good, ☆☆☆ Excellent, ☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.
What to drink
Lemongrass Thai Cuisine features a full bar with signature cocktails, wine selections and a beer menu complete with domestic, microbrewed and imported beers. For nonalcoholic options, it has Thai iced tea, Thai iced coffee and hot teas.
The cocktail menu has original selections such as the Lemongrass Lemonade, featuring Absolut Citron Vodka; Ty Ku citrus liqueur; lemonade and lemon-lime soda; and more common options such as the mai tai or margarita.
From the beer menu, I suggest the Chang or Singha, light enough to complement rather than overpower the careful balance of Thai flavors.