JOCO Dining: Cacao offers sophisticated improvement over familiar local Tex-Mex fare

Photo via Cacao on Facebook.

By Charles Ferruzza

The oldest continuously-operating Mexican restaurant in Overland Park is the Torreador Restaurant at 7926 Floyd Street, which has been serving the kind of dishes we now call – sometimes dismissively — Tex-Mex (tacos, nachos, enchiladas, burritos and queso dip) since 1963.

Still, many Americans were first introduced to Mexican cuisine by moderately-priced Mom and Pop restaurants like Torreador (the first Taco Bell opened in California in 1962 but didn’t really conquer the Midwest until the 1970s). Mexican food was Tex-Mex, whether at a fast food location like Taco Bell or outposts of that swinging chain, Chi-Chi’s (which was a major player in the Mexican restaurant industry from 1975 to 2004 when it filed bankruptcy and settled multiple lawsuits related to the largest hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history, traced back to a Chi-Chi’s in Pennsylvania). The chain is almost non-existent in the United States today.

But diners have developed far more sophisticated tastes since 1963 and with the Kansas City market well-saturated with variations on the Tex-Mex theme, the March opening of the offbeat Cacao at 5200 West 95th Street in Prairie Village was a welcome respite.

Cacao is owned by veteran restaurateurs Victor Esqueda (of the Northland’s Ixtapa restaurant and a vocal foe of “yellow cheese cuisine”), his nephew Alfonso Esqueda, and Ivan Marquez (best-known for Overland Park’s Frida’s Contemporary Mexican Cuisine, which he sold two years ago; the venue is now closed).

The three owners had initially planned to open a more upscale and ambitious Cacao just south of the Country Club Plaza, but instead took over the free-standing building most recently occupied by the Kokopelli Mexican Cantina (and before that: a short-lived Michael Forbes Grille, among others).

The building was given a stylish, but modestly-executed makeover to become Cacao – the Spanish word for the cocoa bean; the dried and fully fermented fatty seed of Theobroma cacao – which offers a far more exotic menu than its Tex-Mex contemporaries in Johnson County.

There are tacos, but these are the flour tortilla street hand-helds (not the crunchy Taco Bell variety) including cochinita pibil (pork marinated in achiote), a pork chile verde and a meatless version with roasted vegetables; five variations on enchiladas and a limited number of entrees, including a sweet potato “lasagna” layered with pork shank birria (the shank is slowly braised until fork tender with vinegar, onion, garlic, cinnamon and cumin).

Cacao is a Mexican restaurant for a grown-up palette – the chef is Fernanda Reyes, a graduate of a Mexico City culinary school — and the owners will introduce a new menu in the next few weeks, adding several fresh fish dishes, more appetizer choices and replacing the 8-ounce Cacao steak with a French-cut pork chop.

Marquez says there are also plans to build out a portion of the restaurant to create a second bar that will offer both alcoholic beverages and espresso, Mexican hot chocolate – a nod to the historical use of the cacao bean – and pastries.

Cacao may also be one of the few Mexican restaurants in the area serving, as a dessert, tequila ice cream. For adults only.

Charles Ferruzza’s weekly column for the Shawnee Mission Post and Blue Valley Post will run each Friday.

The bar at Cacao in Prairie Village.
The bar at Cacao in Prairie Village.