I remember it like this: Taxco was very hot that day, and my host family had asked if I wanted to attend Sunday evening church services with them. Catholic guilt is as powerful as they say. In my childhood, mass was a well-timed sixty minutes, but this seemed interminable. I told my host mother that I had a headache and excused myself to absently wander the cobblestone streets. I stopped at a tiendita and grabbed a snack—a cellophane package printed with a blue and white geisha. Odd for Mexico, but I had been seeing these cacahuates japonés everywhere. I stood outside and ate these incredible peanuts swaddled in a crunchy coating of wheat flour and soy sauce as the sky changed from orange to purple.
Snacking in Mexico is an art form, and there is an endless array of treats. In Kansas City, if you want to find that one little candy that calls back to a shadowy memory, you’ll probably need to hit more than one Mexican mercado. Or you could go to Taco Naco.
It’s not that this Overland Park restaurant-shop mash-up has such a large selection. It’s that the offerings—both on the menu and in the market area—are so intentional. Here, essential Mexican dulces like cacahuates japonés, Glorias and Mazapán de la Rosa are next to crates of fresh fruit and vegetables, a freezer full of bright paletas and, crucially, a line of Taco Naco-branded pantry items (dried chile de arbol, infused whole black garlic) and ready-to-devour items.
The six salsas are your introduction to Durango-born chef and co-owner Fernanda Reyes. Her hottest is the roasted fuego: Habaneros, white onions, garlic and tomatoes are scorched in a high-heat oven, blended with smoked paprika and finished with fresh cilantro. This one will hurt more than your feelings. The creamy jalapeno has the soothing color and texture of whipped avocado. We’ve written before about Taco Naco’s salsa macha, which finds roasted garlic, chile de arbol, tomato paste and peanut butter in a nutty, spicy, blissful union. For her best-selling mild tomatillo salsa, Reyes co-opts a recipe from her husband’s grandmother.
This is where Taco Naco’s story starts to unfold. Brian Goldman, whose father is from Kansas and mother is from Toluca in central Mexico, met Reyes at a wedding in Mexico in 2014. Within three years, they married and she moved to his hometown of Overland Park. In 2019, Goldman needed an idea for a master’s class project and the two cooked up the concept for a catering business called Taco Naco. When they began pitching a tent at the Overland Park Farmers Market in 2020, it was mostly to market themselves as caterers. But Reyes soon found herself needing a larger prep kitchen, and there happened to be a space available just a stone’s throw from the farmers market. The restaurant opened in January. Most Saturdays, Reyes bounces like a grasshopper between one spot and the other. When Reyes first moved to Kansas, she worked at Cacao Restaurante in Prairie Village, where her plates were polished and delicate. With its small menu and counter service, Taco Naco is adamantly simple but far from basic. Reyes is not a traditionalist. The pork al pastor is roasted in the oven, not on a trompo. Reyes is careful to remove the fat from her barbacoa before she serves it. While she does have pickled red onions and fresh chopped cilantro, she also makes an array of aiolis, cremas and fresh salsas to finish her dishes. And she uses local, organic, non-GMO Yoli tortillas (“You can’t have a good taco without a good tortilla,” she quips).
“Some of my customers are a little disappointed because they expect Mexican tacos, and that’s not what I do,” Reyes says. “It’s a combination between Mexican flavors and products with what I think goes well with it, which is sometimes a lot of the things we have here in Kansas.”
Reyes offers five Mexican meat-based taco fillings, plus two vegan mole options, served on tostadas, nachos, burritos and quesadillas. For her pork al pastor, Reyes marinates thin slices of pork butt overnight in an earthy adobo sauce made with guajillo peppers and cascabel chiles—the same recipe her grandmother used—then sears it on the flat-top and serves it with a zippy pineapple pico. The chicken al pastor receives the same preparation but with a thick marinade made from annatto seeds and bitter orange, and it’s excellent spooned over a crispy tostada with avocado crema. There is a chimichurri-inspired herb sauce that steals the spotlight from the perfectly seared carne asada it finishes. It’s made with thyme, rosemary, Mexican oregano and cilantro, and it’s the next condiment Reyes should look at batching for sale.
For the cochinita pibil, a pork butt takes a bath in the same rich achiote paste marinade before being swaddled in banana leaves and slowly roasted for six hours. It’s juicy and particularly good when it’s tucked inside a buttery flour tortilla and griddled with gooey, salty Chihuahua cheese. And though I have yet to experience a Christmas dinner at a sprawling Oaxacan ranch, I imagine it would feature quite a bit of Taco Naco’s soft, sumptuous brisket barbacoa, braised with chipotle paste, cloves and avocado leaves.
While Reyes runs the kitchen, Goldman handles the business and the bar. During the pandemic, Taco Naco began selling bottles of margarita mix made with pureed fresh fruit. The mixed berry—a particularly lush combination of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, hibiscus and ginger—is a steal at twelve dollars for thirty-two ounces (enough to make two pitchers of margaritas). But I prefer the passionfruit, which Goldman mixes with tequila and pours into a cup rimmed with a lip-puckering combination of chamoy and tajin. “When Brian said we should sell margarita mix to go, I didn’t think anyone would buy it,” Reyes recalls, laughing. “It’s insane how much of it we still sell. But Brian thinks a lot; I just like to cook. Taco Naco is what happens when you have a workaholic Mexican girl and a crazy American. We’re just young kids and we’re passionate. We want to show our culture… and we just hope people like it.”