Roman Raya doesn’t like to use the word “authentic.” The owner of Barbacoa, a new-ish restaurant on Troost serving smoked meats in a Mexican style, doesn’t think of his food in that way.
“[It’s] what’s authentic to us—not specifically trying to say that this is how it should be done, or how it’s always been done, but how we’re doing it,” Raya says.
It’s also very personal. The brisket is made much like Raya’s father made it for Chiefs games: over an offset stick burner. The meat is rubbed with just salt and pepper and smoked for ten to twelve hours over hickory. The carnitas, on the other hand, is the product of a hybrid approach. “The carnitas is essentially par-smoked and then finished in the traditional way—in a manteca with the citrus and spices.”
Raya broke onto the KC food scene with Mexican street food spot Taco Tank, a kiosk at the Iron District food park in North KC. In April, he took over the former Urban Cafe spot at East 55th and Troost with Barbacoa, building a small but sturdy menu for three nights of dinner service (Thursday to Saturday) and Sunday brunch.
“The food menu is specifically derived from our childhood and our experience growing up Mexican-American and also being very immersed in the culture of Kansas City barbecue,” Raya says. “The launching point for our menu items comes from food that we had at home—and mixing it up a bit and also looking at traditional roots for some things.”
Mexican-influenced barbecue is not unheard of in KC, of course. Poio was well-known during its run in KCK, and there are a handful of solid spots including Fuego’s BBQ Mexican Cocina (I like their chicken and ribs) and GG’s Barbacoa Café in KCK. But Barbacoa is a little different, and not just because it’s a full-service restaurant with a sophisticated drink program. (That drink program includes the Savory Summer cocktail made with tequila that’s been fat-washed with the trimmings from the carnitas and a whisky drink made with Four Roses washed in smoked chocolate.) The big differentiator at Barbacoa is the way the bright flavors of Mexican food and smoked meats are integrated. With Barbacoa’s brisket tacos, for example, the beef is splashed with a sauce made with Morita chiles. The taquitos are stuffed with smoked chicken and served with mole.
“What I see a lot of is barbecue meats served with Mexican sides,” Raya says. “What we really need to do is marry those two together, making sure the two are combined rather than paired.”