Feb 18, 2011

Lulu's: New & Improved!

Restaurant: Lulu's Thai Noodle Shop
Food: Mostly Thai noodles, some other Asian influences
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Atmosphere: Vibrant lunch, slow dinner
Price: Entrees $9-$14, $7.49 lunch menu
Rating: two napkins

I always kinda liked the old Lulu’s location right there at the bustling Crossroads intersection of Broadway and Southwest Boulevard. Its bright green woodwork beckoned to those yearning for an eclectic spot with good Asian noodle dishes, like me.

Not visible here is a funny sign in the door that
seemingly bans customers from bringing in durian,
a notoriously stinky Asian fruit banned many places
in the East.
But I had the same complaints about the place that so many others did: too small, too crowded at lunch and nowhere to sit or stand while waiting for a table. Let’s face it; you had to get there before 11:30 to have any chance of leaving before 1:00.

So it was with notable optimism that I watched and waited for this new location to open, just a half block southeast of the original on Central. What else would the “new Lulu’s” have in store… a new menu? New vibe? New clientele?

Yes, there really are those creepy giant
gold fish in there.
Last week I checked out the new location for the first time with a group of friends from the office, a particularly apt method of investigation as it’s always been more of a lunch place for me than dinner. Don’t get me wrong, they’re open for dinner – always have been – but with few other restaurants around it and living as close to the Plaza, Westport and 39th Street as I do, I just don’t tend to head that direction at night as often as I do during the lunch hour when I’m already downtown.

First things first: the favorites from the old menu are still there and some new features have livened it up (I'm particularly excited about the Thai Street Foods section—Gai-Yang, anyone?). So if you liked their food before, you still will. And if not, you’re out of luck. But who didn’t like it? It’s one of the few places in town where one can get Thai food, period, the ingredients are fresh and tasty, there are several seriously spicy options for the heat freaks and the prices are good. Better than the competition, by far, and the food just as good if not better. Get on board, I say.

Lamp shades are upside down woks. Clever!
The new space: upgrade. For sure. Walking in, lunchers are greeted by a new host’s stand and three rows of benches, in case crowds start to form. This Lulu’s is built for speed, which benefits their business and their customers’ sensibilities. Moreover, there’s now a zen-inspired koi pond up front which should offset the angst of hungry stomachs with a soothing sense of calm.

Six person booths are fun. So are the bright walls.
Plush it is not, but why should it be? What once was a bombed out brick warehouse is now a brightly painted, bustling dining room. With concrete floors and brick and cinder block walls, there’s not much sound absorption going on, but it isn’t deafeningly loud, either. I liked that, looking around, there was no doubt I was in a Thai restaurant, yet it was a fun Thai restaurant. To me, more enjoyable than, say, Thai Place in Westport.

Vietnamese spring rolls. Not worth it.
Our group was seated in a wide booth, easily accommodating the six of us. We started with crab Rangoon – some of the best in town – and Vietnamese Spring Rolls—some of the worst in town. The crab Rangoon aren’t over-stuffed with cheese and actually have a bit of a crab flavor, giving them a leg up on 90% of the other Rangoon served in KC. The spring rolls here, on the other hand, are still totally flavorless. The yellow peanut sauce with which they’re served hints at peanut but is otherwise too diluted. And all that vermicelli and rice paper are so filling, I instantly regretted eating them.

Crab Rangoon. Worth it.
Lunch that day was a classic from the old Lulu’s menu: Drunken Noodles, from the $7.49 Lunch Specials list. This is the type of meal I could eat almost every day of the week. A warm bowl comes filled with a bed of wide rice noodles which are stir fried with Thai basil, peanuts, bean sprouts, scallions, Chinese broccoli, lemongrass, green and red peppers and egg. You can count on the veg to be perfectly crisp-tender and this dish, in particular, packs a lot of varied flavors… sweet, salty, bitter, acid, umami… it’s a delight in the mouth.

Look how they stuff so many fresh veg
into this bowl of Drunken Noodles.
My second trip, dinner with Elizabeth, yielded a totally different experience. Different vibe altogether. It was quiet. We weren’t the only diners there, but the larger, partitioned space separated us from each other to the extent that we felt alone. Service was prompt and attentive, the food good, but there was a depressing sterility in the air. The new space is not drawing a new dinner crowd, apparently.

Our dinner started with spring rolls, again, despite my pleading for dumplings. Elizabeth regretted her decision immediately, taking a big bite and then proclaiming the peanut sauce to be terrible. We’ve completely written them off now. But what lacked in our app was made up for with our two delicious entrees.

I tried the Banh Mi, not recognizing it from the menu of old. I was shocked at its size (mammoth, approximately). A heap of ground pork filled a long, soft baguette and came topped with daikon, carrot, cilantro, cucumber and plenty of sriracha aioli. Sweet and salty pork, crisp, sweet veggies, spicy aioli, bright, citusy cilantro… it all played so nicely together. Worth every penny of its $7.79 price.

I was surprised Elizabeth and I both wanted the Pad Num Mun Hoy, as we’re not big Chinese sauce fans, and the menu touts this dish as Pan-seared egg noodles, green beans, mushrooms and broccoli in a Chinese inspired brown sauce ($10.29). But we got it and we loved it. Here again the veggies were cooked perfectly. Crunchy, softened just a little. The noodles were springy and the sauce, though, yes, a dark brown, sweet, sugary substance, wasn’t too goopy or thick. It brought everything together deliciously.

Between Pad Num Mun Hoy and the Drunken Noodles, I’m a bigger fan of the Drunken, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Chinese-inspired Pad to anyone.

So I’m applying the valid clichés: Lulu’s is back and better than ever. New look, same great taste. They’ve cured the most egregious of its former faults (lunch rush overwhelmed-ness) but will have to keep working on the sparse dinner crowd.

Rating: two napkins

Lulu's Noodle Shop & Satay Bar on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

Chris Jones said...

Can't go wrong with Lulu's!

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