Finding an authentic — yes, authentic — Mexican experience at Prairie Village's Cacao
You can find passable Mexican food just about anywhere these days: The cuisine has become so Americanized that even Chili’s will make some decent quesadillas. Street tacos are a phenomenon all their own — and every hipster worth his waxed mustache can tell you exactly where to find the best selection in town.
Look, if those chain-restaurant quesadillas work for you, or if you gauge the worth of a taco by how far you have to drive to find it, that’s cool. If your idea of Mexican food is a platter full of cheese-covered anything and half a tub of whipped cream, you’ll find a dozen area eateries perfectly willing to cater to your palate.
Just don’t expect any of that nonsense at Cacao Restaurante.
The Prairie Village restaurant opened in March in the former Kokopelli space. Its owners — Victor Esqueda, who also owns Ixtapa Mexican Cuisine in North Kansas City; Esqueda’s nephew, Alfonso Esqueda; and Ivan Marquez, the former owner of Frida's Contemporary Mexican Cuisine — are united by a common goal: to bring some regional Mexican identity back to Mexican food.
Victor Esqueda is exceedingly proud of the menu at Cacao. When my party and I arrived during dinner hour on what appeared to be a slow Thursday evening (we were one of three tables in the vast dining room), he was at our table before we had sipped our waters.
“This isn’t Mexican food like you’re used to,” he says. “No deep-fried chimichangas. How disgusting! We don’t put cheese in everything. This isn’t Tex-Mex.”
Esqueda told us this with all the gusto of a Ringling Brothers circus ringmaster. He had no top hat or curled mustache, and I found myself wishing he did: Those flairs would not be out of place for his animated — and rather charming — character.
And indeed, as I glanced over the menu, I had to agree with Esqueda: There is a notable absence of the usual Americanized Mexican fare. No trio of hard-shell tacos (“What is that? I never had that until I came to this country,” Esqueda scoffs), no sizzling fajita skillets. The enchiladas and burritos listed are familiar-sounding in that they are served with rice and beans, but the options — like the “flor de calabaza” enchilada, stuffed with requesón cheese and squash blossom sauce — are far from the beaten path.
A couple menu items raised eyebrows. For a restaurant that bills itself as traditional, true-to-form Mexican, I wondered how a dish called “lasagna” was going to reconcile itself. Esqueda spun it not as fusion, but as a loose riff on the Italian original: thinly sliced sweet potato in place of pasta, slow-cooked, spiced pork shank in place of ground beef.
Esqueda and Marquez — along with Executive Chef Fernanda Reyes — have designed Cacao’s menu in order to encourage diners out of their comfort zones. They take inspiration not from any particular region in Mexico, but have instead plucked out some of the most unique elements of the national cuisine.
“We don’t want to compete with Port Fonda or Zócalo,” Marquez told me a few days after our dinner. “We wanted to be unique with our menu items, and that’s why we chose not to limit ourselves to a specific region. You’ll see dishes here from Puebla, from Guadalajara, from Mexico City — anything goes.”
This is essentially the message that Esqueda echoed tableside before he left us to make our selections.
As chips and salsa did not arrive complimentary to our table — this is not that type of Mexican restaurant, I expect Esqueda would say — we felt compelled to order the “trio de salsas” off the appetizer section ($5). It’s a pretty plate: Fresh, lightly salted, paper-thin corn tortilla chips with a bright green tomatillo salsa, a Sriracha-red tomato-and-onion salsa, and a peppery brown roasted poblano salsa. The tomatillo and the tomato were bland (though with a little salt and a little heat, they would have made excellent bloody mary mixers); the poblano was surprising, a blend of smoke and spice that kept my companions and I going back chip after chip, wondering aloud at the secret ingredients.
The queso fundido ($9) — a Oaxaca cheese-and-mushroom dip of sorts, and strongly recommended by Esqueda — arrived piping hot in a metal platter with a side of corn tortillas. Oaxaca cheese can be a difficult master: similar in texture to mozzarella, but not as pliable, it becomes a solid mass once it cools. Thankfully, as we scooped stringy forkfuls into tortillas — our own makeshift quesadillas — there was little time for this dish to rest.
But the tuna tostadas ($12) were the star of the appetizer round. Spiced, fully cooked tuna was piled atop three puffed corn tostadas, drizzled with a powerful habanero-lime sauce and sliced avocado. This was just enough to have me reaching for my Añejo 3 Margarita — one of Cacao’s signature cocktails, and a remarkably grown-up take on the classic: no salted rim, no froufrou fruit flavors — this balanced boozer let the rich caramel and white pepper notes of the aged tequila sing.
Among the other cocktails I’d have three or more of again was the Botanical Breeze, a cucumber-infused gin and lavender number that, despite its name, was happily easy on the sugar. (“I’d be splashed in the face with that,” one of my dining companions declared.) Likewise, I consider Cacao’s Mezcal Mule — featuring Xicaru Silver Mezcal, lime juice and ginger beer — to be an improvement upon the original recipe.
These drinks went down easily, and for a few moments, we forgot that we were dining in a Kansas suburb rather than sitting at a beachside cabana off the coast of Mexico. Cacao’s decor elevated that feeling: swatches of cerulean blue and cream, with light wood accents, cast the dining room in a tropical light. There were no conch shells lying around, but had there been, I’m certain I would have heard the ocean loud and clear in one.
The arrival of food jarred us back to the Midwest. Our entrees were prefaced by a choice of soup or salad, which was odd, since all the entrees on Cacao’s menu are priced between $10 and $24. The side salad — a handful of mixed greens tossed with balsamic — was fine; the “mac and cheese soup” — with overcooked macaroni noodles in a watery tomato broth — was not. It was an unnecessary and rather off-putting introduction to the main dishes that the Esquedas and Marquez had so carefully planned, and most of that course was wasted.
Thankfully, the entrees held their own. Esqueda had forcefully steered us away from the pollo en mole to his pollo miel ($13): “No one does this dish like we do,” he promised. The goat-cheese-stuffed, honey-glazed chicken breast came atop a bed of fresh white rice and grilled bell peppers, with a generous drop of coconut-citrus sauce and sesame seeds spooned over the bowl. As hard as it may be to believe that goat cheese and coconut pair well, a few bites of Cacao’s pollo miel made me a fresh convert.
The pasilla relleno ($13) — a “real chile relleno,” as Esqueda put it — looked impressive: a pasilla pepper stuffed with ground pork and beef (cooked together with apples and walnuts) and decoratively wrapped in puff pastry, floating in a pool of savory tomato sauce. I’ve witnessed many sad poblano peppers stuffed artlessly with cheese, slathered in batter and served in a sopping, oily mess; Cacao treats this honorable chili with the respect it deserves.
By far, the most inventive dish was shrimp jicama tacos ($10). Instead of tortillas, jicama — a root vegetable similar to a turnip — was thinly sliced, trimmed to perfectly round pieces and blanched in ice-cold water. Chilled shrimp (which the menu listed as “fried”) were carefully arranged with bold chunks of watermelon, mango and tomato, and drizzled with a tangy guajillo cream sauce. Though it can hardly be called a main dish — the three tacos were no more than two or three bites each, and for the price, I couldn’t complain — this spoke to the creativity that it’s possible to enjoy at Cacao, as long as you can fight back your instincts at ordering an enchilada platter.
Shrimp jicama tacos
Presumably, there is a dessert menu at Cacao; Esqueda, fully in his element as the conductor of our dinner, told us that he had selected our “grand finale” for us. The coconut milk and passion fruit panna cotta ($7) was feather-light and divine, but the humble pan de elote ($6) came with a side of history.
“This recipe is 250 years old, from the nuns of central Mexico,” Esqueda says. “They were going to receive a guy from Spain, an important guy, but they didn’t have money to buy flour. But they had white corn, blue corn, baby corn, and they made the first cornbread.”
Cacao’s slightly sweet pan de elote is served warm, and new-fashioned plating saw it dressed up with a smear of chocolate sauce and mango coulis. Again I was confronted by flavors that would normally spar: mango and cornbread, cornbread and chocolate, all coexisting beautifully in one dish.
Perhaps better than most, the Esquedas and Marquez understand the peculiar harmony required at a Mexican restaurant in the Midwest — and Cacao hits the high notes.
Cacao Restaurante is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 5200 W. 95th St., Prairie Village, Kan., (913) 296-7485, cacaokc.com