There’s no point in asking about the best Mexican restaurant in Kansas City, Kansas.
It’s an absurd question given the sheer size and diversity of the Mexican community, says Edgar Galicia of the city’s Central Avenue Betterment Association.
(Read: Galicia’s picks for the best Mexican dishes in KCK are here.)
“People here don’t have a favorite Mexican restaurant,” he says over a plate of perfectly crisp tripa tacos at Taqueria 7 Leguas. “We know what dish is best in what place. Here, I have tacos de tripa — and they’re so good. But down the street at El Torito, I would have tacos de cecina — and they’re so good. If I want tacos de asada, I go another place. We go from place to place judging the best dishes, not the restaurant as a whole.”
Galicia, who is originally from Mexico City, says most Americans only encounter perhaps 10 percent of the Mexican food found south of the border. But that’s higher in KCK. In Chicago or Los Angeles, you can find anything if you look hard enough, but among midsize American cities, Galicia says KCK’s breadth of offerings is unique.
That’s because people from all over Mexico settle in Kansas City, Galicia says, bringing their regional specialties with them. “We know who makes the best carnitas because they come from Michoacan,” he says. “We know who makes the best mole because they come from Pueblo. That is a luxury very few places in the U.S. have.”
Kansas City’s impressive array of Mexican food is not a new phenomenon, according to José R. Ralat, the food editor of Cowboys & Indians magazine. Ralat traced the spread of Mexican cuisine across the continent for his forthcoming book, American Tacos: A History and Guide to the Taco Trail North of the Border.
KCK’s rich history of Mexican influence dates back to the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821. Although Americans consider Kansas City to be the Midwest, our city also enjoys a place in the lore of the borderlands. Ralat points to one of the oldest folks songs of the American southwest, “El Corrido de Kiansis,” which describes a Chisholm Trail cattle drive.
That presence never went away. Instead of fading when horses gave way to trains, the intercultural exchange was supercharged by the rise of the rail, which happened to coincide with a series of conflicts in Mexico that culminated in the Mexican Revolution.
“Railroad companies took advantage of the conflict by ‘recruiting’ Mexicans at the southern border and shipping them en masse to the Kansas City railyards,” Ralat says.
In an eight-month period between 1907 and 1908, there were 16,000 Mexican laborers sent to work the local railyards, Ralat says, and by 1922 Mexicans made up 85 percent of the labor force at KC railroads.
“It’s this foundation that created KC Mexican food,” Ralat says.
KC has continued to claim this place, Galicia says, pointing out that Interstate 35 is part of the most important route between the U.S. and Mexico, a trail that will take you directly to Mexico City if you keep driving south.
I spent the past two months eating at dozens of Mexican spots along Central and Kansas avenues in Kansas City, Kansas, to find the best and most distinctive dishes. After a few dozen meals, I lost track of all the places I tried — it got to the point that my 3-year-old daughter asked why we only eat Mexican food.
Here are the eight distinctive bites you should try — plus some picks from Galicia.
Half chicken with sides at El Pollo Rey
901 Kansas Ave., Kansas City, KS | 913-371-4243
El Pollo Rey’s menu is just three lines long. This busy restaurant on the Kansas Avenue strip only sells chicken, which comes by the whole, half or wing. The birds are scrunched together on a wood-fired grill and given a slow, smokey char. Then, the pollo is plated with rice, beans and warm corn tortillas. On the side come a ziplock baggie of onions and a little styrofoam cup filled with a red salsa that’s been blended down to pulp.
The Chicken King’s smoky, blacked birds fall apart with the poke of a fork, which has won the restaurant an enthusiastic local following. Be warned that you might be waiting for a seat on weekends.
Potato tacos at Tarahumara Mexican
Tarahumara is a small shop on the southern edge of KCK, far removed from the other spots on the list — walk across the street and you’re in Johnson County. Tarahumara’s owner, Fred Garcia, comes from Chihuahua, the largest state in Mexico, which shares a border with west Texas and New Mexico.
Garcia takes pride in being from Mexico’s heartland. He also takes pride in his salsa.
The simple salsa is my favorite in town. It’s simultaneously fresh and herby, the product of a process the owner assured me is simple. “We just cook the peppers,” he says, scooping the elixir into little styrofoam cups between customers.
That salsa is a perfect match for the house’s potato tacos (four for $5.99). These very traditional tacos feature a blend of ground beef and mashed potatoes and come on a deep-fried corn tortilla with cheese, lettuce and a dollop of sour cream.
Asada tacos on Saturdays at Bichelmeyer Meats
The Bichelmeyer family has been in the Kansas City butcher business for five generations. This hulking warehouse in KCK opened 73 years ago and now sources beef from its own ranch in Williamsburg, Kansas. Bichelmeyer’s 60-foot counter has about everything you could ask for, and the shop’s specialty is competition cuts for barbecue battlers.
The Bichelmeyer family is German, but many of their employees are Latino. Since Saturdays are so busy, they invite the families of their staff to set up a taco counter on one side of the meat counter.
The hand-scrawled menu consists of double-stuffed tacos for $3 each. The tacos are served on corn tortillas hot out of the frying oil and loaded down with meat, giving them a homespun, backyard cookout quality. The long list of cuts for tacos and quesadillas includes everything from hog maws to smoked pork chop, but you can’t go wrong with the asada.
Enchiladas at Ninfa’s
The family that owns Ninfa’s moved up to Kansas from the central Texas town of Brady, bringing a recipe for handmade flour tortillas with them.
Those thin, taut and impossibly soft marvels are served instead of chips when you take a seat, carried to your table in a warmer with a squirt bottle of glowing pink salsa and a blue squeeze bottle of Parkay margarine.
To enjoy those tortillas as a meal, get them made into enchiladas ($7.50) and served on a platter with rice and beans. You can take home a 10-pack of tortillas, too ($2.75).
Deshebrada street tacos at San Antonio
There are many, many great street tacos in KCK. But after trying dozens of recommendations, I’m of the opinion that the deshebrada at Carniceria y Tortilleria San Antonio are the finest in the metro area.
This little market-slash-tortilleria-slash-taqueria has a butcher counter in the back and pinatas by the coolers. But the large line that forms snakes up to the taco counter, where you order five or six smallish tacos to eat on the sturdy log furniture that looks like it was salvaged from the set of Ponderosa.
All the tacos here are good, but the one that stands above all others to me is the simple shredded beef known as deshebrada. Splashed with green or orange salsa from the little bar in front of the meat-loaded griddle, these piles of soft, lightly seasoned beef on super fresh tortillas are tacos in their purest, most elemental form.
Juarez Burger at Hamburguesas Los Compas
305 N. Seventh St., Kansas City, KS | 913-242-7804
KCK has so many Mexican restaurants that, as in Mexico, you find restaurants specializing in world foods with a Mexican twist. Such is the case at Los Compas, a burger and fry spot that serves salsa alongside ketchup.
The menu has a diverse array of options, including the local favorite, Hawiana with pineapple. I like order number one: The Juarez burger topped with ham, avocado, bacon and a pile of shredded lettuce, plus a side of seasoned fries ($6.50). Everything about this char-kissed burger is great, but the soft, crushable torta-style bun off the griddle is truly a revelation.
Grilled fish at Jarocho
The KCK location of Jarocho stands next to a used tire shop, but it’s noticeably more upscale than anything else on this list. This fish-focused Mexican restaurant not only has waiters but also features an omakase option and a liquor menu that tops out at $38 shots.
Jarocho’s seafood-centric menu includes everything from fresh oysters to paella, but you can’t go wrong with a simple grilled trout topped with a salsa of guajillo and chiles ($22).
Beef barbacoa sandwich at GG’s Barbacoa Cafe
210 S. Seventh St., Kansas City, KS | 913-242-7038
Gabriel Gonzalez, owner of GG’s Barbacoa Cafe, started as a chef at the KC Sporting stadium, where he learned how to make barbecue. When it came time to open his own place in a train car-sized diner on Seventh Avenue, he decided to put his new skills to use with a smoker out front.
GG’s has a diverse menu that features heartland breakfast and barbecue alongside traditional tortas and tacos. In the early morning, you can sidle up to the counter and get coffee with brisket omelettes, French toast, hashbrowns or eggs. Later on, there’s everything from picadas to pozole.
I recommend the beef barbacoa sandwich with Mexican-spiced beef that’s smoked and shredded then served up on thick and buttery Texas toast with a side of seasoned fries. For optimal effect, ladle some chili oil onto the ’cue and douse those fries in the house’s salsa verde — a very specific brand of MidwestMex fusion food you’re only going to find in KCK.