JOCO Dining: Where to head when the hunger hits you late at night in Johnson County

ABC Cafe's odd hours make it a coveted destination for hungry night owls.
ABC Cafe’s odd hours make it a destination for hungry night owls — even if it’s no longer open until midnight. Photo via Facebook.

By Charles Ferruzza

I’m at the age now – don’t ask – where eating late isn’t so great for my digestion and certainly hazardous to my diet. I think back, with a mix of horror and amazement, to the many nights when I used to drive through the old White Castle restaurant at 88th and Metcalf (it’s now a Starbucks) for a sack of greasy burgers. Even when I was stone cold sober – an appalling confession for someone who writes about restaurants.

Dining late doesn’t have the same meaning to me now as it did when I was in my 30s and frequently stopped in at the Denny’s at 10480 Metcalf – still open 24 hours a day — for a post-movie snack (which always involved French fries). Now, eating after 8 p.m. is the exception instead of the rule. (I still haven’t succumbed to the lure of the “Early Bird Special,” if there still is such a thing, because I’m not emotionally prepared to eat a cheap meal before 6 p.m.).

So what is late by today’s standards? Most restaurants in the Johnson County metro shut down the kitchens about 9 p.m. Even if they actually stay open past that point, the kitchen crew frequently starts cleaning up around 9 p.m. – weekends are always the exception – and if the server starts rolling his or her eyes as you squeeze into a booth, you know things aren’t going to go well for the rest of the meal.

But now that there are so many dining options in the suburbs, the opportunities for dining after 10 p.m. – which seems to be the standard for late these days – are far greater than they were even a decade ago when Denny’s was one of the only venues still serving.

Take, for example, the beloved dim sum snack shack, the cozy ABC Café at 10001 West 87th Street in Overland Park, which used to serve food until midnight, but now only keeps the kitchen open until 10:30 p.m.

The ABC Café was my go-to spot for unexpected late night craving (I mean, sometimes you just have to have chicken feet with black bean soup after 10 p.m.) and the crowd that hung out there after 11:30 p.m. was far more interesting than the usual suspects who showed up during the traditional dinner hour.

The ABC Café has offbeat hours anyway: it’s closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and doesn’t open until noon every other day (and carry-out doesn’t start until 12:10 p.m., no exceptions). The delicious food and modest prices – most of the dim sum is priced at $3.28 per plate – make up for a lot of the eccentricities here, but I miss being able to stop in before midnight.

That’s why I’ve developed a serious love affair with Jen Jen’s Authentic Chinese Restaurant at 9066 Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park which still serves it’s Cantonese cuisine every night (except Monday when the venue is closed) from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m.

The place, which has a loyal following, isn’t stylish in any way and the tables are pushed so closely together that eavesdropping on the next table is unavoidable – it’s the worst place in town to break up a relationship or share scandalous gossip – although that’s always been a drawing card for me, along with the menu, filled with dishes you won’t find at most Asian restaurants in the city.

Jen Jen’s is more expensive than the ABC Café, but not outrageous and I’m willing to pay a little extra for one of this venue’s signature clay hot pot dishes or varied seafood choices. And if the restaurant isn’t glamorous in any way, the cuisine is allowed to have the starring role here.

I’m starting to compile a list of my favorite places to dine – on the Kansas side of State Line – after 10 p.m. Preferably places that don’t make late-night diners feel harried or rushed after the clock strikes 11 p.m.

I’d love your suggestions on restaurants that make venturing out to eat later in the evening a positive dining experience.

No drive-thoughs, please. I don’t eat in my car anymore.