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.