Taco Republic

I was very excited to try the new Taco Republic restaurant when it finally opened after the usual construction delays. Beautifully positioned to capture the overflow from its across-the-street neighbor Oklahoma Joe’s, I had watched its transformation from a former gas station and was intrigued by the new setup. Part indoors, part out, this place is made for hanging out and enjoying a beer at happy hour. The ambiance the restaurateurs have created is oh-so-very-cool. Brilliant, really. When it’s nice out the whole space is open, but that space can still be utilized when the temperatures dip. It’s the latest in a growing line of successful restaurants developed by bread & butter concepts, the group that also owns Urban Table, Gram & Dun and BRGR.Taco RepublicTaco Republic patioTaco Republic

So it was with a sense of anticipation that I stopped by for lunch one afternoon.  It was a chilly day, so the soft walls on the outdoor area were down and the heat lamps were full throttle. My friend and I started with guacamole which came with a huge basket of chips. We ordered salsa verde on the side. There’s a squeeze bottle of rojo salsa at every table which reminded me of the big bottles of barbecue sauce that grace the tables across the street. The red salsa was a bit sweet, but it had way more flavor than the green, which needed a major shot of hot sauce to give it heat and a reason to eat it. The chipotle salsa, I noted on a subsequent visit, packs some heat though it doesn’t have a ton of chipotle smokiness.Guacamole and salsa verde--Taco RepublicChicken taco and pork mole taco--Taco RepublicBeans and rice at Taco Republic

The menu consists of cheese dips, tacos, tortas and even tamales. Tacos are categorized by meat, chicken or veggie; I tried  the Puerco Rojos with shredded pork, black beans, sautéed onions and peppers, as well as one with grilled chicken, mole and chipotle slaw. In both cases I thought the sauce and fillings were better than the actual meat, with both the chicken and pork being a bit on the dry side. If they could find a way to keep the meats moist, those tacos would be flying out of the kitchen. I had sampled several tacos at the Taco Republic truck that roams around town and was more impressed with those offerings, perhaps because the tacos were churned out on a smaller scale.Queso Fundido--Taco RepublicTortilla Soup--Taco RepublicHalf-Roasted Chicken with Charro Beans--Taco RepublicFrito Pie--Taco RepublicTaco RepublicTaco RepublicTaco Republic

On another visit, we started with a decadent queso fundido with melted Chihuahua cheese, roasted poblano peppers and chorizo, served with flour tortillas for scooping. We resisted the temptation to eat the whole cazuela lest we ruin our appetites; it would not be difficult to make a meal of it. It made great leftovers the next day. We followed that up with a rich and satisfying tortilla soup, the kind that is thick, not brothy.  Each dip into the cute crock produces a spoonful of avocado, chicken, cheese and, of course, strips of tortilla.

Upon seeing Frito pie on the menu, we couldn’t resist ordering it since it’s a rarity outside of New Mexico where the unusual dish was invented. It typically consists of Fritos that have been smothered with a beef, bean and cheese topping, but we chose Taco Republic’s chicken chili version instead. It was served the traditional way, on top of Fritos still in the bag. If you like sweet and salt, this dish is for you.

The wood-fired chicken was originally a carry-out order only, but now it’s a menu item in a half-chicken size. It was served with Charro beans and rice, and corn tortillas for making mini-tacos. The chicken was smoked and very moist, creating a nice option for those who might want a healthy menu option.

Next I hope to swing by and grab some street tacos to-go for breakfast; the menu is short but looks very sweet.

Taco Republic is a work in progress, but one with a huge upside. Though the food doesn’t yet hit on all cylinders all the time, for the most part each of my meals were satisfying and I’ve left wanting to return. And the way the restaurant was devised is just SO inventive. It’s the sort of joint I would imagine you’d find in Portland, Oregon or Austin, Texas, two big food destinations that are full of fun and unique venues. And it’s important to note that this restaurant is in capable hands with the Gaylins at the helm. I suspect that next spring, it will be THE patio of choice for lazy afternoons and Happy Hours. There’s no question we have plenty of Mexican restaurants around town, but how many score so high on the cool factor scale?

Taco Republic on Urbanspoon

Esquina in Lawrence

Note: I just received an email from the owners alerting its customers that Esquina’s concept will be changing…..the cuisine will be Mediterranean in focus, and will offer table rather than counter service. The restaurant will close temporarily on Feb. 10 and reopen for business on Feb. 19. I’m posting this anyway, but be aware that you only have 5 short days to sample Esquina’s delicious fare in its current form!

Esquina is the brainchild of Molly and Robert Krause of the beloved and now closed Krause dining. Having a restaurant in their home was all-consuming, so they turned to more casual endeavors. Hence Esquina and its sister restaurant and neighbor on Mass Ave., the Burger Stand at the Casbah.

If Esquina was in Kansas City, I would be a frequent visitor (hear that Robert and Molly?). As it is, I have to content myself with a fix or two during basketball season, and that’s only if I’m not sampling the competition… there are certainly a multitude of fun and fabulous restaurants in Lawrence.

Logistically the restaurant is similar to Spin, where diners order and pay at the counter, and then a server delivers food directly to the table. You have to fetch your own silverware and soft drinks, but if you order from the bar, your alcoholic beverage will be brought to the table as well. Service is quick and friendly, and no one will shoo along those who choose to linger. The Gringo margarita is hard to beat at a ridiculously low $2.50.

Each meal comes with complimentary chips and homemade fire-roasted salsa. Though my husband could easily have made a meal from them, he was also enthralled by the trio of sauces that are at the table, the way ketchup and mustard would be featured at a burger joint. Diners can add either jerk, chipotle and/or a fiery habanaro sauce to any order, allowing customization and individual heat adjustment.

On my first visit, I had a bowl of posole, which was prepared in the finest Mexican tradition. It’s broth based, with spoonfuls of hominy and shredded pork, and topped with radish and avocado slices. A bit salty for my taste, but I tend to undersalt my food so I am especially sensitive to it.

I always gravitate towards chilaquiles when I see them on a menu, as each chef puts its own spin on a dish that was originally invented as a way to use up leftover tortillas. A layered tortilla casserole, it is baked with a chipotle tomato sauce that soaks into the tortillas. In some renditions the tortillas retain a bit of crunch; this one was soft and the layers became one. It was then topped with two fried eggs and, to gild the lily, a queso sauce. Made for the novice Mexican food eater, it will appeal to those with tame tastebuds. I’m a “the spicier the better” kind of gal, but it was still rich and satisfying.

Even better was the El Jefe burrito I recently enjoyed. Aptly described on the menu as a GIANT burrito, it is stuffed with garlic potatoes, slaw, rice, beans and smothered in sauces. When I asked the woman at the register what the sauces would be, she told me there was a red sauce, a green sauce and a cheese sauce, and as you can see from the photo, they all run together into yummy goodness. I’d order it again in a heartbeat.

Everyone else at the table ordered enchiladas, though each with different protein fillings: purple potato and garlic puree filling; chicken and black bean; and shredded pork with pineapple salsa. Though the salsa verde that topped the enchiladas didn’t send anyone over the moon with rapture, there was universal praise for the beans. Smokey and cooked in a rich sauce resembling mole, they were hearty and as exciting as a side of beans can be.

Robert and Molly Krause are both very talented and savvy restaurateurs, and nice people. My only beef with them is that their first foray out of Lawrence was to Topeka, not Kansas City. But hopefully at some point they’ll expand eastward.

Esquina on Urbanspoon

Tamale Wizard

Some of you may recognize the name of this new  little spot in the River Market: Tamale Wizard started as a food cart that frequented farmers’ markets and the Crossroads Truck Stop. Having achieved enough success to know they were on to something, the owners decided to open a brick and mortar location.

The narrow space is counter service only and everything is made to order, with a side of assistance if you can’t decide. Once your number is called you can take your plate to either sunlit tables by the window or booths along the brick walls.

While tamales are the main attraction, there are also a number of tacos, and the occasional enchilada special.

We ordered a chicken tamale with tomatillo salsa, a pork tamale with red chile sauce, and one with green chile and cheese. I also tried the cinnamon pork and potato taco, essentially ground pork that had been formed into bite sized morsels of goodness. A side of salsa comes with each taco or tamale, and there are a half dozen or so to choose from–avocado, mango banana, chile peanut, tomato jalapeno, cherry pistachio and tomatillo. Each of these can also be ordered with chips as a starter. Combos allow mix and matching and come with one or two sides. We both had the green rice, one had black beans and the other smokey pinto beans. At $8, a bargain for the portion and quality.

Though I’d sampled a tamale from the Tamale Wizard cart at the Overland Park Farmer’s Market last summer, my expectations were low. How would it translate to a full restaurant experience? Could the owners take the concept to scale?  By my measure, they have succeeded on both counts.

The tamales and tacos were chock-full of their respective meats, the masa was light and not at all gummy, the salsas were fresh and flavorful with the appropriate amount of zing, and the rice and beans were superior to most around town. I was there during a quiet time of day, so I didn’t see how the made-to-order ideal translates to long lines, but they certainly had enough staff on hand to handle a rush.

Breakfast is served on Saturdays until 3 pm. The menu includes breakfast tacos and tamales with eggs, as well as chilaquiles. The owner indicated that migas and huevos rancheros will soon be served.

With more businesses and residences opening in the River Market area, I hope there’s enough traffic for Tamale Wizard to make it on non-Farmer’s Market or concert days to make it. It certainly deserves to shine.

 

 

Tamale Wizard on Urbanspoon

Empellon–New York City

Empellon is located in the West Village, along one of those cute little streets that makes me think I’m far from the Big Apple. (But could someone tell me how West 4th St. and West 10th St. can logically intersect?) Recently opened by Alex Stupak, the former pastry chef of WD-50 is garnering some nice reviews.

The restaurant consists of two rooms. The front room is disturbingly loud, but we were fortunate to be placed in the back room. Perhaps they seat the pretty people in front, but we lucked out without knowing it at the time. The white brick walls and eclectic art in the back room are also more serene than the wild mural that dominates that scene as you walk in the door.

It may seem too pedestrian, but be sure to accompany your margarita or beer with the chips and salsa.  Four gorgeous salsas come to the table with a beautiful explanation of their ingredients, including chipotle, tomatillos, pumpkin, guajillo chiles, peanuts and cashews.  Try as we might, the two of us couldn’t decide which was our favorite of the bunch.

Ceviches are a specialty here, including black bass with beets and guava puree and big eye tuna with Salsa Mexicana. We opted for an unusual riff, and tried the octopus with parsnip and Salsa Papanteca (with chipotle and pumpkin seeds.)   Though I admired the creativity, it was hard to distinguish the flavors and seemed surprisingly one-dimensional.

Queso Fundido is another appetizer with some intriguing variations. Instead of the typical melted cheese for scooping onto warm tortillas, chorizo, pea tendrils  or mushrooms can be added to the mix. We skipped this, and went right for the tacos, which comprise the bulk of the menu.

We wanted to sample as many varieties as we could, so got the appetizer portion of each. They can be ordered as an appetizer (2 to an order) or entree (3 to an order but still no side dishes).

The scallop tacos were incredible. I thought I’d seen it all when it comes to tacos, and though I’ve made scallop nachos, it never occurred to me to translate that concept to a soft tortilla, rolled up with orange and silky habanero sauce with avocado puree.

Skirt steak is a favorite of mine  in general and this was prepared sous vide (under vacuum) to an ideal medium rare. With garlic and lime mojo de ajo, it hit the spot.

The lamb barbacoa has online reviewers drooling, but we went for the duck confit instead and were not disappointed. (It’s not currently on the menu, so try the lamb!)

Other options for taco fillings include lobster, chicken, pork, sweetbreads and tongue.

My benchmark for this kind of upscale Mexican meal is Frontera Grill in Chicago. Did Empellon measure up? In some respects, yes, though the overall experience was not as transcending. But it’s a nice change of pace from the kind of evening you’d have at Gotham Bar, Gramercy Tavern, Babbo, or Marea.

Empellon on Urbanspoon

Port Fonda food truck

Wow. What a treat. I stopped by the Port Fonda food truck last Saturday afternoon to sample chef/owner Patrick Ryan’s Mexican fare, cooked to order at the truck’s stove.

I had been reading for months about Ryan’s project, a retrofitted airstream trailer. And this is not any old trailer. The interior is wrapped with gorgeous wood and has a chef’s table to match (more on that below.)

The truck is only open on weekend nights, with the exception of Saturday afternoons when you can usually find Port Fonda in the Rieger Hotel Exchange and Grill parking lot for about a 14 hour stretch. During the day the menu is limited to a few items, but when evening comes another handful of offerings take shape in the kitchen, ranging from tacos to tortas (Mexican sandwiches.)  With our ever-increasing reliance on social media, the best way to discover where the truck will be parked and what will be on the menu is to follow Port Fonda on Facebook or Twitter.

I had the great fortune of going to Port Fonda on a day when they were serving chilaquiles– tortillas layered with  a tomatillo/habanero sauce and chorizo verde,  and topped with a fried egg.

I’m a big fan of Frontera Grill in Chicago, and when I heard Ryan used to work there, I knew this was going to be good. Even with high expectations, it blew me away. I haven’t been this excited about a dish since I first had a pizza at Pizza Bella and dreamt about it that night.

Ryan nailed the salsa. It sang with the roasted flavor of the chiles and had a marvelous kick to it. The tortillas had been softened by the sauce but weren’t soggy, as tends to happen if the dish is allowed to cook too long. And the egg was perfectly cooked, its runny yolk melding with the other ingredients to complete the happiness in my mouth.

The pozole was also authentically prepared. Red chile base, chunks of hominy, topped with radish and lime. A hearty and warm soup for a chilly, dreary day.

I wanted to try a taco and the only one they were serving that day had a tripe filling. For those unfamiliar with tripe, it’s part of a cow’s or pig’s stomach and is the main ingredient in a traditional Mexican soup called Menudo. Not a fan of Menudo, I was not overly enthused, but I ordered it anyway. It came in crisp strips and had I not been acutely aware of what I was eating, I may have mistaken it for meat. It was simply garnished, as are most street tacos, with pickled onions and just a touch of sauce. Not my favorite taco ever, but worth sampling.

Within the truck is a cozy table for 6, with a U-shaped banquette. The dining room (known as el comedor) is available by reservation only on weekend nights. Ryan is offering a 3 course meal centered around a pork shoulder and served with all the fixings to roll up in tortillas. I’m excited for that experience– based on my initial visit to Port Fonda, it should be a blast.

 

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Port Fonda on Urbanspoon

Happy Hour at Pierpont’s

Pierpont’s is a gorgeous restaurant within Union Station that opened when the old train depot was renovated in 1999. Primarily known for its steak and seafood, it also has a fun and extremely reasonable happy hour. It’s offered from 11 am to close on weekdays, and from 4-6 pm on weekends, in the lounge only. But that’s certainly not a sacrifice–the bar is a stunning space, with a ceiling high liquor display and the original lighting and molding. The only problem is that it’s usually packed, because this incredible deal is not a well-kept secret.

Crab packed crab cakes are $5.95, shrimp cocktail is $6.95, even a strip steak or filet mignon and frites can be had for $10.95. But for a more casual experience, on a recent visit we went for the sliders and tacos, washed down with draft beer (also discounted).

The tacos and sliders come in threes. We ordered spicy chicken tacos ($4.95), fried cod ($4.95), Korean BBQ pork ($5.50) and rock shrimp with pineapple salsa ($5.95). Slider choices include Ahi tuna with Thai chili and cucumber ($5.95), pork with fennel mayo and caramelized onions ($5.50), French dip ($4.95), grilled chicken with Gruyère and Dijon ($4.95), and a traditional ground beef slider at $4.95. We opted for the vegetarian choice, smoked Portobello with roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomato mayo ($5.50).

Four of us split five dishes plus some pretty addictive shoestring fries and had more than enough to eat. All drinks are under $5 whether you order a martini, wine or beer.

It’s an unbeatable deal in a lovely setting. It seems like there must be a catch, but there’s not. Just go and enjoy.
Pierpont's at Union Station on Urbanspoon

Hickok’s Bar and Grill

No surprise that Forbes Cross and Michael Peterson* are a winning combination. If you mention their names in the same sentence, people assume that whatever they are working on will be successful.

So it is with their latest venture, Hickok’s Bar and Grill. It has taken over the space previously occupied by Dos Hombres in the River Market area. The interior reminded me of  restaurants I have frequented in Portland, Maine, with high ceilings, brick walls and exposed pipes. It consists of several rooms, with an attractive bar in front. Though the menu is heavy with Southwestern dishes, diners will also find burgers, ribs, salads, hangar steak, meatloaf , fish and  pork chops. And everything sounds appealing; it’s one of those places where it’s hard to decide what to order.

Each time I’ve been we’ve gravitated towards the Southwestern choices. The red chili chicken quesadilla was killer–a bit sweet, with pepper jack cheese, grilled onions, poblanos, and tons of flavor. The grilled shrimp tacos are another winner, served on  fabulous corn tortillas, dripping with a red chili mayo. The nachos were substantial to say the least, and though I couldn’t resist plowing through the layers, they could have benefited from more “stuff” besides chicken and cheese. And then there’s the tuna. Tuna “takos”, tuna nachos on rice chips, and grilled tuna with cabbage and a red chili vinaigrette. The vinaigrette shows up often, but that’s a good thing, as it was when it graced the blackened salmon sandwich at Trezo Mare, one of the many restaurants that Peterson helped launch.

Happy Hour offers some great drink and food specials, with more than enough options to make a whole meal.

Word has it that Hickok’s has some awesome handcut French fries, so that’s a reason right there to go back, but there are two pages worth of other reasons.

* UPDATE: Michael Peterson has left Hickok’s and is planning to open his own restaurant. Hopefully, they have a chef in place who can continue what he started.

Hickok's Southwest Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

El Camino Real

I’m late to the party. Numerous articles and blog posts have already extolled the virtues of El Camino Real, an authentic Mexican dive in Kansas City, KS. I can understand why Charles Ferruzza, my colleague on Walt Bodine’s “Food Critics” show, urged me to give it a try. IMG_0356

We enjoyed a broad sampling of the menu, ordering a tamale, tacos, enchiladas and a burrito. Chips are brought to the table along with a bowl of pico de gallo and a squirt bottle of  chipotle salsa. The tamale was filled with pork and came to the table piping hot. IMG_0352It was moist and tasty. The tacos are made with two stacked homemade corn tortillas and the filling of your choice, and  served with small bowls of onions and cilantro. The pork carnitas burrito came with rice and refried beans. The red sauce that covered it was weak and didn’t have much flavor, so I asked for a bowl of salsa verde to pour over it, which was a huge improvement and made the dish quite enjoyable. The enchiladas won the night. Stuffed with cheese and onions, they were topped with a wonderful mole sauce–sweeter than some,  not as chocolaty or rich as most.

IMG_0353IMG_0355I am a huge fan of New Mexican cuisine, and I tend to compare Mexican fare that I eat in Kansas City to what I devour in Santa Fe. It’s not a fair comparison, I know. If you are in the mood for a very simple, quick, and inexpensive Mexican meal, give El Camino Real a try. Is it the best Mexican food I’ve had in Kansas City?  Probably not, but it sure beats some of the well-frequented establishments on Southwest Blvd.

903 N. Seventh St.

Kansas City, KS

El Camino Real on Urbanspoon