Texas and Kansas have more in common than you might think. A good example is the architecture: The American urban planner George Kessler, who was born in Germany, designed the extensive Art Deco Fair Park in Dallas, home of the State Fair of Texas and its insane fried food. Kessler also designed Kansas City, Missouri’s Paseo Boulevard, one of the first major thoroughfares in the Midwestern metropolis. The 122-year-old road runs along cliffs overlooking the river and is peppered with parks and attractions. The Paseo, as it is known colloquially, is named after the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. The picturesque boulevard runs through Mexico’s capital and is home to icons such as the towering golden angel of independence.
Kessler is just a link between Kansas, Texas and Mexico. There is also a song. One of the first Mexican folk corridos, “El Corrido de Kiansas”, tells of the outstanding talent of the vaqueros from the Rio Grande Valley – and the awe they found among American cowboys in the 1860s – when they drove cattle to Kansas.
Then there is the food. More than a century of mixing Kansas City, Texas, and Mexico influenced the Kansas City-style taco, a ground beef-filled taco dorado topped with grated lettuce and grated parmesan. I love this filled, folded, and fried treat. It seems like a strange dish until you discover that it is a product of the ingredient exchange between the Italian immigrants who worked in the Kansas meat processing plants and the Mexicans who worked on the railroad. That tradition is carried on today by entrenched Mexican-American restaurateurs, like David Lopez of Manny’s Mexican Restaurant, opened by his parents in Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO) in 1980, should you return to town eat. It’s Kansas City at its finest Kansas City. (In Dallas, you can try the local taco at Tacos & Art, owned by Kansas City transplant Lisa Martinez.)
In recent years, the culinary connection between Texas and Kansas only seems to get stronger. A handful of new restaurants have opened in Kansas City, drawing on elements of the taco and grill traditions of both regions, from classic KC taco to barbacoa and brisket. I tried more than a dozen restaurants and food trucks on a recent trip to Kansas and Missouri. I was disappointed with some of the more traditional spots on the highly advertised KCK Taco Trail by the Visit Kansas City Kansas Tourism Association. Instead, the newer and nimbler, more creative taco operations were my favorites. Many of them serve their food on tortillas from one of two local artisanal tortilleries: Yoli Tortilleria in KCMO and Caramelo in Lawrence, Kansas. Both are owned by entrepreneurs who grew up in the state of Sonora, Mexico, and both are excellent. Yoli shines brightest with its nixtamalized corn tortillas, whether traditional or flavored. The limited edition white corn tortilla with all-bagel seasoning is a favorite. Cant praise Yoli’s nixtamal tortillas enough. Simply put, they are some of the best in the nation. Meanwhile, Caramelo has specialized in flour tortillas that even the most discerning Texan would consider religiously good.
With travel resuming after the pandemic, avoid sleeping on a trip to Kansas City. It is an underrated travel destination with a diverse and lively food scene. While it’s impossible to include everything that’s worth trying, I’ve rounded up five of my favorite KC taco joints below.
Chef J BBQ
The food at Chef J BBQ has its roots in Texas barbecue history with a touch of local experimentation and DIY spirit. Justin Easterwood started offering tacos on weekly barbacoa Sundays. His Texan preparation of beef cheeks mixed with brisket point is smoked with hickory and pecan for six hours before resting, wrapped in banana leaves, and placed on the stove in consommé to finish. “It’s an original, old-school grilling, and I’m trying to stick to the roots,” says Easterwood. “I do as much research as possible.” It is clear that he has done his homework.
The barbacoa was a hit and inspired him to move on to other tacos. Easterwood cooks its tortillas in an unconventional way, and while many of the fillings were excellent, I wasn’t a fan of the treat. The lard-enriched Sonora-style flour slices are inflated on a hot panini press before the device is closed to stop heating. The result is similar to a large, round Ruffles potato chip. My meal companion and I were both confused by the strange sight. Why flatten the tortilla instead of letting it bloom to life? “We don’t have the space for a griddle or plancha,” explains Easterwood. Fortunately, he hopes to be able to add a flat top to his kitchen soon.
Made by nearby Yoli Tortilleria, founded and owned by native Sonoran Marissa Gencarelli and her Kansas City-born husband Mark, the tortillas stand up to the panini press well – testament to Yoli’s superior product. Easterwood also cooks a delicious fat brisket taco and another taco with a smoky, flavorful boudin that is sliced and served loose. The uncovered sausage acts like an addictive glue for the slices. It also speaks for Easterwood’s considerable expertise in smoking meat. I’m curious what he tries next. 1401 W. Thirteenth, Suite G, Kansas City, Missouri, 816-805-8283
Fox and pearl
At Fox and Pearl, Chef Vaughn Good brought his fascination with open fire cooking, grilling and the Mexican food history of Kansas City to tinkering. He makes very good beef cheek tacos – with their breast-like, peppery rind and the classic thread of barbacoa – in crispy Sonoran tortillas from Caramelo. Initially smoked with hickory before being replaced by Missouri white oak, the beef cheeks are cooked over high heat in a cupboard smoker. The final step is the addition of beef suet and, as with Chef J BBQ, a banana leaf wrapper. The translucent flour tortillas melt like a communion wafer on your tongue.
During my visit, the sprawling four thousand square meter, two-story room was crowded with guests. The air was filled with laughter and a sense of normalcy before the pandemic, belittling the struggle the restaurant faced last year. To get over the pandemic, Good and his team launched the Night Goat Barbecue pop-up in the restaurant’s lumber yard. Not only did it allow the chef to hone his technique, it also provided Fox and Pearl with a source of income that helped the company stay open. I couldn’t try the Night Goat food, but the menu looks mighty tempting, which features guajillo-infused beef sausage, burnt pork belly tips, and pork head and chicken liver boudin along with tortillas. It’s part of a wave of Texan taco and barbecue culture that is making its way to the Midwest. “I didn’t even realize how much taco culture there was in Kansas City until I moved there [from Lawrence], and Lawrence is only thirty minutes away, ”says Good. “I definitely think you’re seeing a lot more Tex-Mex barbecue heading for Kansas City.” 2143 Summit, Kansas City, Missouri, (816) 437-7001
Photo by José R. Ralat
GG’s Barbecue Café
Through a wood-framed window, Gabriel Gonzalez serves pecan-smoked brisket tacos, breakfast tacos, and more than twenty other items, including pancakes and tortas. Outside on the property sits a barrel smoker, in front of the window there are half-set picnic tables. The brisket I had was chopped and damp, with visible hints of smoke ring and attractive streaks of fat. The breakfast taco fillings were scrambled egg-based preparations with bacon, chorizo, or potato cubes, all covered with a mesh of melted white cheese. The bacon was my favorite, but like all GG tacos, it suffered from corn tortillas, which were so sweet it made me wince with every bite.
It rained all the time when I visited, but that didn’t stop customers: a steady stream of customers queued to pick up their orders. Business was going so well that GG is planning to move to a stationary location with a full-service restaurant by the end of June. A few days before my trip, Gonzalez’s restaurant was also profiled by a local TV station for offering discounts with evidence of COVID-19 vaccination. 210 S. Seventh, Kansas City, Kansas, 913-562-7352
Across the Missouri River in North Kansas City’s Iron District, Taquería Gordita serves locally and seasonally sourced tacos on Yoli Tortilleria’s nixtamalized, GMO-free organic corn tortillas. The aromatic, wonderfully chewy slices make Yoli one of the best tortilleries in the country, in my opinion. They also enrich the already outstanding tacos from Taquería Gordita. In March, cook and owner Sarah Nelson opened her shops in a freight car in an outdoor food park. She serves juicy lamb birria (no beef!) In a crispy yellow tortilla and a side dish of ink-colored consommé. The sweet chicken mole is too sweet, as is the dip chocolate that accompanies the airy churros. But the carnitas, braised in lard the traditional Mexican way, are more subtle. The almost creamy pork strings are interrupted by crispy segments. Unless you’re crazy about the copious use of microgreens on the tacos, just take them off. 1599 Iron, Unit B, North Kansas City, Missouri, 816-226-7911
Photo by José R. Ralat
Drive about twenty minutes southwest of Kansas City, Kansas and you’ll find Red Kitchen in Lenexa’s Food Hall-like public market. Three exquisite breakfast tacos here have all flown me back to Texas. Each (bacon, chorizo, and potato) was pitch-perfect and wrapped in a 6-inch tortilla made from caramelo flour. Owned by Alejandra de la Fuente, Red Kitchen is named for the color of the restaurant’s original kiosk on the second level of the market, where it opened in 2017. Now Red Kitchen is preparing to move to a corner area with bar seating on the ground floor and a growing menu of homely tacos de guisados on a stew basis, as well as breakfast options, chilaquiles, salsas and tamales.
“When I look at the room,” says de la Fuente, “I see the kind of Mexican market taqueria where customers shout orders and hold their fingers for the number of tacos they want.” The joy in her voice was infectious and made me remember visits to those overcrowded mercado stalls in Mexico before the pandemic. It is wonderful that Lenexa will soon have a taste of it. We don’t have that in Dallas, where I live.
De la Fuente sold small quantities of tamales and mortgaged her own wedding ring so she could afford to open Red Kitchen. But the small batches created a huge rush, and with no restaurant experience, she relied on the support of developers, managers, and public market workers. “Without the community, I don’t know how I would have done it. It happened so quickly. I can’t express how grateful I am, ”says de la Fuente with tears of gratitude and adds that she finally got her ring back. 8750 Penrose Lane, Lenexa, Kansas, 913-717-5005