Sea Legs: Jarocho South

Carlos Falcon brings the ocean to town with his new restaurant.



Fried charales (smelt fish)

   When the sazae arrives, we hardly know what to make of it. The meat from these conical Japanese conches have been removed, slathered in garlic and butter and stuffed back into their dark shells, which are then grilled over an open flame. The shells are hot to the touch, and we carefully excavate the layers of flesh. Our final bite is from the very top of the shell — a perfect snail’s spiral of concentrated umami.

   I can count on one hand the chefs in Kansas City who are serving sazae. In fact, I only need one finger — for Carlos Falcon.

   The Veracruz-born chef has challenged notions of what can be accomplished with seafood in the Midwest since he opened Jarocho Pescados y Mariscos in 2015 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Jarocho is a slang term for a person from Veracruz, Mexico.) There, in a rough-around-the-edges space better suited to greasy-spoon platters than exotic seafood, Falcon built a reputation for unrelenting creativity.

   If you build it, they will come — and so Jarocho’s fan club grew. It made sense to open a second location, and in late April, Falcon debuted Jarocho South, located at 13145 State Line Road.

    Jarocho South bears little resemblance to its older sister. There are uniform tables and chairs, nice art on the walls, a pretty bar area, new-looking restrooms and a marble counter where guests can sit in full view of the kitchen. There’s even a pleasant little patch of outdoor seating where, after a round of margaritas, you’ll likely forget that you’re sitting on the sidewalk at a suburban strip mall.

 

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Carlos Falcon

 

   It’s the menu that will transport you from Kansas City. Falcon has worked hard at cultivating special relationships with seafood distributors, like Chicago-based Martinez Produce and Seafood.

   “Martinez orders for me from Tokyo, and the way it works, we get it within 24 hours from Japan,” Falcon says. “They’re not a huge company, so they always work in small amounts. It might be five or 10 pounds of something, and I’ll take it all, and that’s it.”

   Here’s what that means for diners: delicacies like sazae, surf clams, sea urchin an array of oysters — and recently, Nigerian tiger shrimp that weigh almost a pound each — are all up for grabs. In other words: Listen to your server when they tell you about the specials.

   Listen to your server, too, when they tell you about Jarocho’s policy of “zero modifications.” Here’s what that means: Falcon has designed his dishes with a fine balance of emotion and intuition, the way an artist creates a painting. Would you tell Jackson Pollack to leave out the splashes of marigold from his Blue Poles? No? Then don’t ask the kitchen to hold the jalapeños in your pescado a la Veracruzano. (If you really feel that strongly, you can pick them off yourself.)

   The fish fillet Veracruz ($16) — a steamed tilapia fillet topped with capers, minced green olives, red onion, jalapeños, tomatoes and garlic, finished with a whisper of mayo — is a recipe from Falcon’s mom. Veracruz is an agricultural paradise, and while its cuisine may be ranked as some of Mexico’s simplest — Falcon characterizes the dishes as hearty and unadorned — no one can say the flavors are boring.

   “Hearty” is a given when it comes to Falcon’s entrees, and almost all are served with “the Jarocho set” of rice, a red cabbage slaw and either corn or flour tortillas. This is the plating for the delightfully rich Spanish octopus ($25), braised and sauteed and served in a pool of its own black ink, and for the remarkable “stuffed” fish fillet ($16), a pan-seared tilapia topped with a creamy seafood sauce. The latter is one of Jarocho’s top-selling dishes, and not without reason: It doesn’t sound like bay shrimp, blue crab and octopus should be mixed with cream and asadero cheese and lathered over a piece of fish, but Falcon seems refreshingly untethered from established norms.

   The stuffed tilapia may be the best-seller, but I’ll take the whole fried fish any day. Snapper and pompano ($22) are always on the menu, but there’s usually a daily catch offered, and it could be anything: walleye, black bass, sculpin or porgy, all sold by the pound and served with the Jarocho set.

 

Fried whole sculpin

 

   When the whole fish arrives at the table, chatter stops. Guests gasp, delighted and, usually, a little intimidated. Around these parts, we’re unaccustomed to greeting our seafood with its body still intact from teeth to tail; “fried fish” usually means the church buffet offerings during Lent. Not so at Jarocho. Our sculpin ($25) stood up on the plate, its mouth frozen in a Munchian scream.

   Dissecting the fried fish is an exercise in patience. Each section needs to be removed, and a fork can be helpful, but you’ll invariably need to get your hands dirty as you work to release the flesh from the bones, or carve out the tenderest parts from beneath the gills. On occasion, I have witnessed delicate patrons stare bemusedly at their plates before asking their server to handle the labor for them. Depending on the server, this might happen, but those guests are only depriving themselves of a wholly intimate experience — the only thing that could make this more personal would be catching the fish.

   As a rule, I like the pompano. It’s a little fattier than your typical whitefish, which makes for juicy bites. The flakes are large, and the thick skin crisps up nicely in the heat. Pompano has a mild taste, which makes it a friendly choice for Jarocho virgins.

   There are those for whom the epitome of luxury seafood is lobster, and Jarocho will not disappoint those guests. You can get it steamed, but it’s best split and grilled and served with garlic butter-smothered shoestring fries ($30). I have found few things as satisfying as pulling hot, plump lobster meat from its shell and popping it into my mouth.

   You don’t have to order an entree to walk away full, though, for Falcon’s appetizers do not deal in small portions, either. The charales ($11) is a basket full of tiny flash-fried smelt, as addictive as popcorn (though they beg for a creamy tartar sauce or ketchup). The shrimp aguachiles ($22, or $13 for a half order) is like a saucy crudo, with thinly sliced raw shrimp assembled in a pool of cilantro-lime dressing (pro tip: dip your charales in this sauce for maximum flavor). If you’re lucky, there may be an actual crudo on special — pray that it is the sublime guajillo-rubbed cobia ($20), served with a mole of pepitas, sunflower seeds and almonds.

 

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shrimp cucaracha

 

   There is a special section on the menu devoted to ceviche and seafood cocktails. These are the Jarocho calling cards, and it would be a mistake to leave without sampling from either category.

   “When you say ‘ceviche’ to me, the first thing that comes to my head is my childhood in Veracruz,” Falcon says. “We had people from all over the world there, because it was — and still is — a very industrial port city. So I think of our ceviche as a collage of cultures. It has everything: salty, sour, spicy, sweet.”

   There are several options for each category — including a conch ceviche and a blue crab cocktail — but the key difference is in preparation. Ceviche is always raw seafood cured in lime juice; the seafood cocktail is sometimes cooked. Traditionalists will clamor for the bay scallop ceviche ($19), gently kissed by lobster broth and lime juice and flecked with cilantro, but you can bury me in a tomb full of ceviche Jarocho ($17, or $13 for the half order). Thumbnail-sized chunks of whitefish mingled with Jarocho’s house-made ketchup — a recipe quirk from Veracruz.

   The seafood medley cocktail is enough to put the country club shrimp cocktails of yore to shame. This monster assembly — whitefish, shrimp, octopus, blue crab and conch mixed with mirepoix and spiced lobster broth — is served in a goblet the size of a fishbowl. Swim some crackers or tortilla chips through this ocean and congratulate yourself on your excellent decision.

   At the table next to us, I overheard a server explaining the shrimp cucaracha ($20 to $30, depending on portion size). It’s a plate of whole shrimp, flash-fried and sauteed with cilantro, garlic and Jarocho’s signature hot sauce. It’s the ocean’s answer to Buffalo chicken wings, and it is just as worthy of a following.

   “The heads are still on?” one guest asked, incredulous. “Nope! Next.”

   That guy missed out huge. Jarocho is no Red Lobster, and anyone afraid of greeting their meal in its God-given form should steer clear — Falcon’s goal is to let the product shine on its own merits, and that means changing only what’s necessary. Removing the shrimp heads would mean sacrificing flavor in the cooking.

   “I want people to get their hands dirty a little bit,” Falcon says. “This food is about contact.”

   It’s also, in part, about doing something for the environment. Yes, Falcon frequently imports from Japan, and no, that’s not great for the carbon footprint, but he’s also committed to getting responsibly farmed fish where he can. And he’s got an interesting take on invasive species — like the predatory Nigerian tiger shrimp, which are consuming Florida’s small crabs and native shrimp, and the aggressive lionfish, currently destroying Florida’s reefs. At Jarocho, these specimens are given new roles: dinnertime heroes.

   If you go to Jarocho enough, you’ll start to pick up on a few things — like the underlying Asian influence in Falcon’s dishes. Thai chilies, fish oil and other flavors find their way into the kitchen — another nod to Falcon’s free spirit. He’s even borrowed a Japanese term, omakase, for his reservation-only six- to eight-course dinners; roughly translated, it means “I’ll leave it to the chef.”

   “I’m not trying to do authentic Mexican food,” Falcon says. “I think that word ‘authentic’ gets misused. At the end of the day, I’m just trying to execute what I’m passionate about.”

   At Jarocho, that means empowering guests to treat dinner like an adventure. And if you can leave it to the chef, it will be.

   13145 State Line Road, Kansas City, Mo., (816) 492-7118, jarochokc.com. Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.