Texas and Kansas have more in common than you might think. One great example is architectural: German-born American urban planner George Kessler designed Dallas’s sprawling art deco Fair Park, home of the State Fair of Texas and its insane fried food. Kessler also designed Kansas City, Missouri’s Paseo Boulevard, one of the Midwestern metropolis’s first major thoroughfares. The 122-year-old road wends its way along river-view bluffs and is studded with parks and landmarks. The Paseo, as it is colloquially known, is named for Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma. The picturesque boulevard cuts a swath through Mexico’s capital and is home to icons such as the towering, golden Angel of Independence statue.
Kessler is but one link connecting Kansas, Texas, and Mexico. There is also a song. One of the first Mexican folk corridos, “El Corrido de Kiansas,” recounts the outstanding talent of vaqueros from the Rio Grande Valley—and the awe they struck in American cowboys in the 1860s—as they drove cattle to Kansas.
Then there is the food. More than a century of intermingling between Kansas City, Texas, and Mexico influenced the Kansas City–style taco, a ground beef–stuffed taco dorado garnished with shredded lettuce and grated parmesan cheese. I love this filled, folded, and deep-fried treat. It seems like an odd dish until you realize that it’s a product of the ingredient exchange between the Italian immigrants who worked in Kansas’s meat-processing plants and the Mexicans who worked the railroads. This tradition is carried on today by firmly rooted, multigenerational Mexican American restaurateurs, such as David Lopez of Manny’s Mexican Restaurant, opened by his parents in Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO), in 1980. If you don’t visit Manny’s while in KC, you should be required to schlep back to the city for a meal there. It’s Kansas City at its most Kansas City. (In Dallas, you can try the regional taco at Tacos & Art, owned by Kansas City transplant Lisa Martinez.)
In the last few years, the Texas-Kansas culinary link only seems to be growing stronger. A handful of new restaurants have opened in Kansas City that draw on elements of both regions’ taco and barbecue traditions, from the classic KC taco to barbacoa and brisket. On a recent trip to Kansas and Missouri, I sampled more than a dozen restaurants and food trucks. I was disappointed by some of the more traditional spots on the Visit Kansas City Kansas tourism board’s highly promoted KCK Taco Trail. Instead, the newer and more nimble, creative taco operations were my favorites. Many of these serve their food on tortillas from one of two local, artisan tortillerias: Yoli Tortilleria in KCMO, and Caramelo in Lawrence, Kansas. Both are owned by entrepreneurs who grew up in Mexico’s Sonora state, and both are excellent. Yoli shines brightest with its nixtamalized corn tortillas, whether traditional or flavored. The limited-run white corn tortilla infused with everything-bagel seasoning is a favorite. I can’t praise Yoli’s nixtamal tortillas enough. Simply put, they are among the best in the nation. Meanwhile, Caramelo specializes in flour tortillas that even the most discerning Texan would describe as religiously good.
As post-pandemic travel resumes, don’t sleep on a trip to Kansas City. It’s an underrated destination with a diverse and lively food scene. While it’s impossible to include everywhere worth trying, I’ve rounded up five of my favorite KC taco joints below.
The food at Chef J BBQ is rooted in Texas barbecue history with a touch of local experimentation and a DIY spirit. Justin Easterwood first began offering tacos on weekly barbacoa Sundays. His Texas-style preparation of beef cheeks mixed with brisket point gets a six-hour, hickory-and-pecan smoke before resting, wrapped in banana leaves and placed in consommé for finishing in the cooker. “It’s an old-school, original way of doing barbecue, and I’m all about trying to stick to the roots,” Easterwood says. “I do as much research as possible.” It’s clear he’s done his homework.
The barbacoa was a hit, inspiring him to move on to other tacos. Easterwood cooks his tortillas in an unconventional way, and though many of the fillings were excellent, I wasn’t a fan of this treatment. The lard-infused, Sonoran-style flour discs are allowed to inflate on a hot panini press before the appliance is closed to finish heating. The result resembles a large, round Ruffles potato chip. My dining companion and I were both puzzled at the strange sight. Why flatten the tortilla instead of allowing it to bloom to life? “We don’t have the space for a griddle or plancha,” Easterwood explains. Thankfully, he hopes to expand his kitchen soon to include a flattop.
The tortillas, made by nearby Yoli Tortilleria, founded and owned by native Sonoran Marissa Gencarelli and her Kansas City native husband Mark, withstand the panini press just fine—a testament to Yoli’s superior product. Easterwood also cooks up a luscious, fatty brisket taco and another taco with smoky, spicy boudin served sliced and loose. The uncased sausage acts like an addictive adhesive for the slices. It also speaks to Easterwood’s considerable expertise with smoking meats. I’m excited to see what he tries next. 1401 W. Thirteenth, Suite G, Kansas City, Missouri, 816-805-8283
At Fox and Pearl, chef-owner Vaughn Good’s fascination with open-fire cooking, barbecue, and the Mexican-food history of Kansas City has pushed him to tinker. He makes very good beef-cheek tacos—with their brisket-like peppery bark and the classic threading of barbacoa—in crisped, Sonoran-style tortillas from Caramelo. Smoked with hickory at the beginning before that’s replaced with Missouri white oak, the beef cheeks are cooked on high heat in a cabinet smoker. The last step is the addition of beef tallow and, as at Chef J BBQ, a banana leaf wrapper. The translucent flour tortillas melt on the tongue like a communion wafer.
During my visit, the sprawling four-thousand-square-foot, two-floor space was crowded with diners. The air was filled with laughter and a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy, belying the struggle the restaurant faced last year. To get through the pandemic, Good and his team began the Night Goat Barbecue pop-up in the restaurant’s woodyard. Not only did it allow the chef to hone his technique, it gave Fox and Pearl a to-go revenue stream that helped the business remain open. I haven’t been able to sample Night Goat’s food, but the menu, which includes guajillo-infused beef sausage, pork belly burnt ends, and pig-head-and-chicken-liver boudin, along with tortillas, looks mighty tantalizing. It’s part of a wave of Texas taco and barbecue culture that is making its way into the Midwest. “I didn’t even realize how much of a taco culture there was in Kansas City until I moved there [from Lawrence], and Lawrence is only thirty minutes away,” Good says. “I definitely think you’re seeing a lot more Tex-Mex barbecue creeping up toward Kansas City.” 2143 Summit, Kansas City, Missouri, (816) 437-7001
Through a wood-framed window, Gabriel Gonzalez serves pecan-smoked brisket tacos, breakfast tacos, and more than twenty other items, including pancakes and tortas. A barrel smoker sits outside in the lot, with semi-covered picnic tables in front of the window. The brisket I had was chopped and moist, with visible hints of a smoke ring and attractive strips of fat. The breakfast taco fillings were scrambled egg–based concoctions with bacon, chorizo, or cubed potato, all of them capped in a web of melted white cheese. The bacon was my favorite, but it suffered, like all GG’s tacos, from commodity corn tortillas so sweet I winced with each bite.
It was raining steadily when I visited, but that didn’t keep customers away: a steady stream of patrons lined up to pick up their orders. Business has been so good that GG’s plans to move into a brick-and-mortar location with full-service dining by the end of June. A few days prior to my trip, Gonzalez’s restaurant was also profiled by a local TV station for offering discounts with proof of COVID-19 vaccination. 210 S. Seventh, Kansas City, Kansas, 913-562-7352
Across the Missouri River in North Kansas City’s Iron District, Taquería Gordita serves locally and seasonally sourced tacos on Yoli Tortilleria’s nixtamalized, non-GMO, organic corn tortillas. The aromatic, delightfully chewy discs make Yoli, in my opinion, one of the best tortillerias in the country. They also enhance Taquería Gordita’s already superlative tacos. In March, chef-owner Sarah Nelson opened for business inside a freight car in an outdoor food park. She serves juicy lamb birria (not beef!) in a crisped yellow tortilla and a side of inky consommé. The sweet chicken mole is overly sweet, as is the dipping chocolate that accompanies the airy churros. But the carnitas, braised in lard in the traditional Mexican manner, are more subtle. The almost creamy strings of pork are punctuated with crunchy segments. If you aren’t crazy about the abundant application of microgreens atop the tacos, just take them off. 1599 Iron, Unit B, North Kansas City, Missouri, 816-226-7911
Drive about twenty minutes southwest of Kansas City, Kansas, and you’ll find Red Kitchen in Lenexa’s food hall–esque public market. Three exquisite breakfast tacos here all sent me flying back to Texas. Every one (bacon, chorizo, and potato) was pitch-perfect and wrapped in a six-inch Caramelo flour tortilla. Owned by Alejandra de la Fuente, Red Kitchen is named for the color of the restaurant’s original kiosk on the market’s second level, where it opened in 2017. Now in a downstairs space, Red Kitchen is preparing to move to a corner spot with bar seating and an expanding menu of homey, stew-based tacos de guisados, as well as breakfast options, chilaquiles, salsas, and tamales.
“When I look at the space,” de la Fuente says, “I see the type of counter-service Mexican market taqueria where customers are shouting orders and holding up fingers for the number of tacos they want.” The joy in her voice was infectious and had me reminiscing about pre-pandemic visits to those packed mercado stalls in Mexico. It’s wonderful that soon Lenexa will have a taste of them. We don’t have that in Dallas, where I live.
De la Fuente sold small batches of tamales and pawned her own wedding ring so that she could afford to open Red Kitchen. But the small batches led to big crowds, and with no restaurant experience she relied on the support of the developer, manager, and staff of the public market. “If it weren’t for the community, I don’t know how I would have managed. It happened so quickly. I can’t express how truly thankful I am,” de la Fuente says with tears of gratitude—adding that she did eventually get her ring back. 8750 Penrose Lane, Lenexa, Kansas, 913-717-5005