Aep brings new flavors to 39th Street.
Streets choking with traffic, motorbikes weaving around vehicles as they please, hundreds of aromas from street food stalls mixing through the air — it’s enough to overwhelm your senses or spark adventure. That sense of being in the middle of something wild and vibrant and wonderful is exactly what executive chef Jakob Polaco wanted to bring to the Kansas City food scene. At Aep, the 39th Street restaurant he opened with co-owner Adam Northcraft in December, that goal is actualized.
When you enter Aep, the first thing you notice about the restaurant — formerly Thomas — are the colors. The walls are painted a youthful mint; the dining tables are covered in cheerful patterns of grey and bright orange. Woven lampshades hang over the bar, a sheet of metal perforated with funky shapes provides a backdrop to the host stand, and there are plants everywhere. This has the look and feel of a Thai restaurant — a tip the name alone might not have provided.
But Aep’s menu is not strictly Thai food. Or, rather, it’s an honest-to-God representation of modern Thai food as you’d find lining the streets of Bangkok today — which is to say that there’s a lot more to the menu than pad thai.
“There's a huge Burmese immigration population and undocumented refugee population in western Thailand,” Polaco says, “and you taste all that when you go in the food stalls. Burmese food is a big part of Thailand that's not really represented in the States, and it was important for me to include that in the menu. Immigration is a part of every country, and I wanted that Burmese voice to be there.”
Aep’s menu isn’t long — just four appetizers and eight entrees — nor is it particularly adventurous, considering the breadth of Thai and Burmese cuisine. But Aep stands out in Kansas City, where until it opened up, “pad thai” was a code word for a heap of rice noodles soused in run-of-the-mill peanut sauce.
Aep’s pad thai — spelled phat thai on its menu — is plucked directly from the streets of Bangkok, where Polaco spent a few weeks earlier this year, gathering ideas for his spring menu.
“I was working at a restaurant in Bangkok,” Polaco says, “and after I would get off work and take the light rail back to the guest house I was staying at, I’d realize about then that I hadn't eaten in about 12 hours and I was starving. Right outside the guest house, there was a guy making phat thai. It was a utilitarian thing for me — I'd need to eat food, he was right there. He would do it with very small shrimp with the head on, and it was so good every time. I knew that if we were going to do phat thai here, it would have to pay homage to that recipe.”
The little shrimp heads floating through the thin rice noodles in Aep’s phat thai ($12) add a delightful crunch, but more so than this texture, it’s Polaco’s command of flavors that makes this dish stand out. Tamarind is the base of the sauce, and it laces every bite with a tart, funky note. There’s an air of restraint here, too — this dish is much less sweet, less drowned in its own phat thai-ness, than the Americanized standard.
Another familiar Thai classic is given new life in the forest mushroom phat see ew ($12). Smoke dominates this dish in a brilliant way as the flame from the wok coats the fresh wide rice noodles, the gently wilted Chinese broccoli and the seared cremini mushrooms. Each morsel on this plate feels as though it has been individually selected and lovingly prepared. This is one of Polaco’s two vegan entrees, and it is one of those rare vegan restaurant dishes that feels inspired rather than obligatory.
The other vegan entree is the 19th Street Barbecue ($11), named for a lively party district in Yangon, Myanmar, where Polaco also traveled. This humble offering of skewered grilled vegetables — okra, sweet potato and cremini mushrooms — is served with sticky rice and a few slices of pickled cucumbers. While veggie kebobs aren’t going to revolutionize a vegan diet, there’s something to be said for Aep’s sophisticated rendering. Wisps of charcoal dust cling to the skin — a perfect suitor to the house-made nam chim kai, that ubiquitous sweet Thai chili sauce made with vinegar and red peppers.
Gai Gra pow
Gai gra pow is Aep’s only chicken offering, and Polaco makes the most of it in a true nose-to-tail dish. Whole chickens from Campo Lindo Farms are skinned, their fat rendered and their bones used for stock. The dark and light meat is finely chopped and fried with Thai basil, served over a snow-white scoop of jasmine rice and topped with — what else? — an egg fried in chicken fat. Translated, gai means “chicken” and gra pow means “holy basil” — and Aep’s gai gra pow eats like a prayer.
There are two pork dishes at Aep, each disparate and both brilliant. For the muu krob ($11), squares of pork belly are steamed and then roasted over high heat, so the skin crisps up while the inside remains juicy and tender. For the pork kanom jin ($11), thin noodles are made from fermented rice and served with bitter beans and shaved carrot tendrils. While this popular Thai noodle is recreated in-house at Aep with a clinical precision, it's the protein that stars in this dish: prepared muu wan-style — thinly sliced and slowly simmered in a sweet shallot sauce — each bite bounces around the tongue with a joyful tang. Aep's recipe is inspired by Polaco's experience at the stall of a third-generation female food vendor at Bangkok's Suanplu market, whose kanom jin always inspired a line.
I would personally wait in a very long line for Aep's beef rendang ($13), the crown jewel of the current dinner menu. Derived from an Indonesian curry recipe, the beef undergoes a four-hour braise in coconut milk, then is lovingly shredded and plated atop a perfect circle of jasmine rice; purple borage flowers lend a pop of color and a touch of citrus. But the scene stealer on this simple plate has to be the durian sambal. At Aep, the flesh of durian — a peculiar fruit with a notoriously pungent, rotten smell — is salted, pressed and fermented with chili paste for 24 hours to make tempoyak, which is then mixed with fresh chilies and shrimp paste for the sambal. The resulting condiment is sweet, spicy, sour — an instant classic.
The mohinga ($14) has a lot going on. This fish stew is the national dish of Myanmar, and Polaco sought to recreate it as accurately as possible. Chickpeas, catfish, vermicelli noodles and cubes of winter melon are tightly layered together and topped with Chinese cruller croutons. The composition begs for a slightly larger bowl so that all these components can mingle a little better — and of all Aep's entrees, this was decidedly the most mild.
Appetizers are a simple affair. The naem ($7) — Aep's house-made, fermented pork sausage — has a pleasant punch of garlic, complemented by a hill of pickled cabbage. More impressive is the muu ping ($9), where thin strips of pork shoulder are marinated in palm sugar, soy sauce and coconut, skewered and slow-grilled over charcoal. This meat-on-a-stick is just on the cusp of jerky — and every bit as addictive.
Fans of collard greens will find a lot to love about Aep's Burmese curried greens ($7). Thick spinach leaves are stewed in a mild yellow curry and served with chickpea chips — a gluten-free answer to pita chips with a far more satisfying crunch.
Only the brave should tempt their fate with Aep's som tum ($7), a green papaya salad with dried shrimp and a tamarind chili dressing. While Polaco insists that the heat level is nowhere near what you'll get when you order this Thai classic from a Bangkok street vendor, it still packs a rather unfriendly punch. I found something terrifically bewitching about the vicious streak this dish left in my mouth; most of my companions did not.
Thai cuisine is not generally known for its resplendent dessert options, and yet Aep has four on its menu. The mango sticky rice ($5) is the most instantly recognizable of these, and though the rice has the look and feel of gloopy porridge, the mild sweetness and coconut flavors stand tall against the brilliant, tangy manila mango. Likewise, the melon dosa ($7) faithfully recreates Thailand’s sweet, crispy crepe, and the “textures of melon” — pickled watermelon rind, watermelon gel and fresh cantaloupe — made for a light, lifting bite.
The semolina cake ($5) is one of the most ubiquitous Thai snacks, though usually it’s not served as a dessert. It comes out spongey and dense, topped with raisins and poppy seeds — nothing like the sugar bomb we’ve come to expect from an end-of-meal treat — and is the perfect complement to one of Aep’s Thai coffees with sweetened condensed milk ($3).
Polaco’s Chinatown tincture enthusiastically breaks with tradition. While most of Polaco’s menu reads like an elevated presentation of Thai and Burmese street food, the tincture is pure art: at the bottom of a white bowl, a small pile of minuscule, iridescent sago pearls, pink cantaloupe slices and pickled watermelon rind are layered together; the dessert isn’t complete until the server floods this arrangement with a cupful of gingko milk. Fruity, refreshing — a bit like cereal milk, but in a good way — the tincture is inspired, Polaco says, by a health tonic he had at a Chinese medicine stall in Bangkok.
Chinatown tincture dessert
It’s a rare guest who doesn’t stop into Aep without intending to eat there. But the drink menu deserves a fair share of attention, too.
Cocktails are designed by veteran bartender Laura Wagner, formerly of SoT and Il Lazzarone, and she has used Polaco’s menu as a muse for her recipes. There’s a clarified Thai tea milk punch ($11), featuring gin, turmeric, kaffir leaf and betel nut; a riff on an old fashioned called “Chua” ($9), featuring bourbon, a tamarind grenadine and aquafaba syrup; there’s even a Chiang Mai Mule that calls for galangal, a ginger-like spice. There are house-made shrubs, too, with flavor mash-ups like tamarind and pomegranate or lemongrass and coriander; these are offered with soda for a non-alcoholic option or with, say, vodka and soda for a little extra fun.
“Thai drinking culture isn’t too crazy,” Wagner says. “They like light beers, sometimes on ice. I’m more interested in using Thai ingredients to make a cocktail program, and working with our kitchen to use what they’re using — and also help reduce waste a bit.”
Wagner works these nontraditional ingredients into her cocktails with a finesse and a talent that suggests Aep may soon become a drinking destination, too.
These unexpected delights behind the bar and elsewhere in Polaco’s menu are just enough to awaken the dormant wanderlust in stray diners. Close your eyes, and that nam chim kai will transport you to a bustling food stall on a hot day as motorbikes buzz around you and shoppers whistle past you — smack-dab in the middle of something wild and vibrant and wonderful.
1815 W. 39th St., Kansas City, Mo., (816) 832-8866, aeprestaurant.com. Aep is open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Bartender Laura Wagner (left) with Jakob Polaco (Right)