During the pandemic, Buck Tui’s smoked chicken—brined for forty-eight hours with lemongrass and coriander and smoked over cherry and oak wood for five hours—crackled to life just once a week, in the open air under a tent at the Overland Park Farmers’ Market. If you wanted to claim a whole or half chicken for your Saturday brunch, you needed a stealthy combination of luck and timing. If you wanted a breakfast burrito in a Yoli tortilla, you needed to rise with the farmers.
The immediate success of Buck Tui BBQ isn’t all that surprising. In retrospect, the combination of smoked meats paired with Thai flavors is so obvious that it’s remarkable Kansas City has waited so long for the concept to emerge. And while owner and pitmaster Teddy Liberda credits the pandemic as the catalyst for bringing Buck Tui to the masses, to him, Thai-style barbecue is the most natural thing in the world.
“Any time we have an event or we’re cooking at home, we have Thai food and barbecue,” he says. “It’s in my bones, but I had never put it on a plate to serve anyone else.”
Teddy grew up in the restaurant business: His Thailand-born mother, Ann Liberda, opened Thai Place in Overland Park thirty years ago, and several iterations followed (today, Thai Diner in Lawrence is the remaining outpost). The dishes at those restaurants were largely fine-tuned for an American audience. Even when Teddy and his co-chef and wife Pam opened Waldo Thai in 2018, the menu was comfortably mainstream. Pam has since taken the kitchen’s helm and centered the menu around the Northern Thai dishes she grew up with. But at the height of the pandemic, Teddy—like so many of his peers—was forced to think creatively.
“We were shut down and looking for ways to make it, so we started doing pop-ups with barbecue places, and we kind of rolled with it,” he says. “In a lot of ways, this has been years in the making.”
Indeed, when Buck Tui opened in the former Plowboys space at 75th Street and Metcalf in Overland Park in February, it felt like the restaurant had been around for years. The space has been transformed entirely from its days as Plowboys Barbecue: The dining room is unpretentious but not unattractive, a comfortable mix of spacious red booths and dining tables against charcoal gray walls and cozy lights.
Since opening, Buck Tui has enjoyed an enthusiastically populated dining room. Many guests are Farmers’ Market regulars, and they confidently order Buck Tui barbecue plates piled with fish sauce-brined brisket and Isaan-style pork sausage, fluffy jasmine rice, thick-cut sour pickles and house sauces. Plenty of other guests come in expecting pad Thai, and still more regard the menu with confusion, curious where their plain seven-dollar brisket sandwich is.
Fortunately, Buck Tui can meet everyone where they’re at.
“I walk the line every day between being American and being Thai, and that’s culturally and culinarily,” Teddy says. “We’re creating our own menu with blended cuisines, and it’s brought people through our doors for Thai food who wouldn’t normally eat Thai food because they think it’s too spicy or too different. Here, people will come in and get fried rice with barbecue or a sandwich, and they orient to the flavors—and then they come back.”
In a town saturated with competition, Teddy and his team are giving barbecue lovers something new to champion. Smoke dominates the menu, though Thai brines and rubs go a long way in setting the Buck Tui flavors apart. The house rub—Buck Tui’s “heavenly seasoning,” a combination of coriander, garlic and palm sugar—is generously applied to pork butts, pork ribs and shrimp. The ribs are particularly good: A combination of smoke, sweet fat and ruby-red meat is barely contained by the sticky sheen of a tangy ripe cherry glaze.
Of the smoked meats on offer at Buck Tui, the Amish Gerber chicken is the greatest accomplishment. After its extended brine, the chicken is smoked for up to five hours. When you order it, the kitchen will flash fry it in canola oil, rendering the skin crispy and shiny. It is seasoned to the bone, so when you break through that sleek casing, you are rewarded with meat so delicate that its journey to your mouth is blissfully weightless.
What I like best about Buck Tui’s pork sausage is what others may like least. It’s lean, typical for Isaan (northern Thai) sausage, and less intensely smoked than the other meats, which leaves room for the lemongrass, cilantro and dill seasonings to blossom.
There is a sub-genre of barbecue enthusiasts for whom the sauce makes or breaks the meal. Those in this camp will be happy to learn that Buck Tui’s tiger cry sauce—a sublimely layered combination of fish sauce, oyster sauce, lime juice, Thai chili, garlic, cilantro, and palm sugar that accompanies every barbecue plate—could make burnt wood chips palatable.
There are a few surprises on Buck Tui’s menu. Full-size chicken wings are finished with a pleasantly subtle butterscotch caramel glaze that carries just a hint of fish sauce funk. Fried wonton chips serve as the base for a hulking pulled pork nacho platter, where a velvety mornay sauce seasoned with buckwheat chili crunch steals the show. Alas, the golden egg rolls, once bursting equally with juicy brisket and cream cheese, have suffered an unfortunate loss of beef in their transition from the Farmers’ Market to the table.
The massaman beef short rib has a lot going for it, but the ambrosial curry made with turmeric, coconut milk and roasted peanuts was not enough to redeem a substantial hunk of meat that needed to be far more tender.
There are a handful of sandwiches, none of which are priced under fourteen dollars (though all include a side of perfect shoestring fries). Most people will be drawn to the substantial X Man, a sandwich named for executive chef Kara Anderson’s son, Xavier, who wisely suggested piling “all the meats” (brisket, pulled pork and sausage) on a bun.
On the brunch menu, find an impeccably balanced pork fried rice (there’s a version served in a half pineapple for dinner). And the brunch-only brisket pho—influenced by the Thai kuai-tiao ruea (boat noodle soup) and booming with aromatics and a deep beef flavor—is in the running for best in the city.
At press time, the bar at Buck Tui was still under construction, and beverage director Mari Matsumoto had unveiled six signature cocktails—a third of the total number she has planned and a strong indication of the craft program Overland Park is about to be blessed with. Matsumoto’s drinks share Thai ingredients from the Buck Tui kitchen—palm sugar, Makrut lime leaves, coconut cream, pandan leaves—and influences from her native Japan, like yuzu citrus and Asian pear. At thirteen dollars, the Phat Punch is the most expensive drink on her menu, but I would happily pay double: Over a two-week period, Matsumoto infuses a Thai tropical black tea with citrus oil, Thai basil, Thai chilis and galangal root. To serve, she combines this labor of love with whiskey, pours over a clear ice cube and garnishes with a tempered sugar disc dotted with edible flowers.
There are no desserts yet at Buck Tui, though a pastry program is purported to be in development with Little Butter Bakery. This matters little, as you are unlikely to have room for even one of the excellent Thai coffees after your plates have been cleared.