Authentic Chinese fare, Cantonese, Sichuan & Beijing specialties, vegan & vegetarian options, bar
Remember that old saying, “Moo Goo Gai Pan goes best with a good slice of history?” No? Bolings Chinese restaurant in the historical City Market remembers. No matter where you sit at 20 E. 5th St. in the River Market neighborhood just north of downtown Kansas City, Mo., you’ll dine upon once-rugged land purchased in 1838 by John McCoy and his partners—land that eventually became Kansas City. But that ain’t the only history at Bolings.
Richard “Bo” and Theresa “Far Ling” Ng opened Bolings’ first set of doors in Overland Park, Kan.,on March 16, 1981. Since then, five more locations have shown up throughout the city. With over 30 years of service, Bolings and its staff have become Kansas City staples for innovative Asian cuisine and “know-your-name-and-favorite-drink” service.
Like the diverse and eclectic neighborhood in which it’s located, Bolings in the River Market caters to a variety of clientele and diets. They serve everything from classic Chinese-American dishes like cashew chicken to Cantonese specials such as salted fish, chicken & tofu in a clay pot and whole flounder stir-fry. They offer Bejing specialties like roasted duck, Hui-style lamb with spices and Sichuan specialties such as tea-smoked duck, jasmine tea with hoisin sauce. Vegetarians have nine entrée options to choose from including curry vegetables, tofu family style, Sichuan eggplant & tomato, plus many noodle and rice dishes. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, you’ll need to tell the server you would like your meal prepared with water instead of chicken stock. All white sauces are made only from chicken stock and cornstarch. Gluten-free options are widely available; just ask for the “dietary menu,” which contains simple no-sauce, no-spice vegetable dishes. The River Market location also serves dim sum every day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Bolings has recently partnered with Kansas City’s local artisanal ice creamery, Glacé, so you can now finish the meal with honey green tea, ginger mango, or mandarin orange sorbet.
Though not everything is made in-house and not all produce is locally sourced, like some eateries in the River Market, Bolings produces food with integrity. From hand-wrapped dumplings to homemade sauces, Bolings, and its owners, who travel often to Asia to keep their food authentic, aim to uphold the nourish-the-family mantra of Asian cultures.
This Bolings location isn’t your typical Chinese joint, but it sure fits its rugged-yet-chic neighborhood. Contemporary drop-lighting in the bar, concrete floors, brick and stone walls, large hanging lantern lights, swanky chairs with no backs (all aesthetic, no pleasure) and a dose of good old fashioned “sir” and “ma’am” from the wait staff make this place a beloved conundrum. It’s like the old and the new are having a heated conversation in there.
Between the bar’s glass shelving, where you’ll sit sipping your dollar-off wine-by-the-glass at happy hour—or if you are on the wagon go for the chrysanthemum & Goji berries tea—you’ll see the original location of the Gillis Opera House across the street, now home to Opera House Coffee & Food Emporium. We didn’t get the nickname “Paris of the Plains” for no reason—the Gillis Opera House once drew in a crowd as big as 1,700 when it opened in 1883. Unfortunately, a “mysterious explosion” on June 25, 1925, which put the failing opera house out of its misery, destroyed the original building. Or, say you look out the floor-to-ceiling windows along the northern wall under the large off-white lanterns that cast a gorgeous and hazy dusk over the whole restaurant no matter the time of day. There, you’ll find the City Market—the Midwest’s largest farmers market, which dates back to 1857 when the Scheibel Brothers constructed the first market building. In the mid-1800s, this public square bustled with farmers, settlers, pioneer families, riverboat crews, and Indian fur trappers all of whom shared the same goal of trading their foodstuffs, textiles, tools and produce. Merchants aimed to increase shoppers by hiring trapeze artists to perform under suspended balloons in the sky. Think about that when eating your course of edamame and Vietnamese spring rolls.
Set your gaze beyond the City Market, and look toward the Hannibal Bridge—the first bridge to traverse the unpredictable Missouri River in 1869—you’ll find Kansas City’s raisons d’être. It brought the railroads and a variety of businessmen and entrepreneurs who looked to Kansas City for the hope of economic prosperity. Diverse history surrounds you at Bolings, both on the menu and everywhere you look. Historic eccentricities that only a community once standing as the last thriving steamboat town on the edge of the wild and unknown frontier could call its own.
During the day, Bolings is as full of downtown businessmen and women as “Battle Row” was full of vices in the River Market in the early 1900s. By night, however, the place is a ghost town and you have your pick of any table in the joint. Always go for the booths, though—farthest away from 5th Street, where the spirits of Opera’s-past are said to lurk at night.