Take a Trip Down Kansas City's Taco Trail
Barbecue hogs the spotlight in Kansas City, Missouri, but a diverse Mexican food scene warrants a special trip across the state line into Kansas City, Kansas.
Just over the Kansas River from Kansas City, Missouri, train traffic clogs the railroad lines that run thick through Armourdale, a neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. (These twin but rival cities will heretofore be referred to as KCMO and KCK.) Grain elevators emit a low buzz, harmonizing with the clangs and engine racket from scrap yards and automotive shops. The landscape is largely industrial gray—but one building pops in bold aquamarine, embraced by the orange painted arms of a giant octopus.
Inside Jarocho, the colors keep dancing, pink and green splashing the walls. This vibrant oasis is home to one of the area's best chefs, Carlos Falcon. Dishes such as grilled baby octopus with charred onions, fresh oysters with lime juice, and fried smelt with chili-lime salt draw from his native Veracruz. Guests who reserve a spot in advance can try a Japanese-style omakase (chef's choice) experience, featuring six surprise courses of deliciously fresh fish flown in that day.
Jarocho represents the epicurean side of KCK's extraordinarily varied—and until recently, little-known beyond locals—Mexican food scene. For a glimpse of the other end of the spectrum, head a mile north on Central Avenue. At Supermart El Torito Inc., customers shout orders to a half-dozen butchers, making themselves heard over the rattle of cleavers and bone saws. An audience of unicorn and superhero piñatas sways above, watching the action. Here, you can pick up beef picanha (a South American-style cut from the cow's rump), cecina seca (a revered type of Mexican jerky) or marinated chicken feet (no translation needed, just a sense of adventure). The market's taqueria next door dishes tacos, chilaquiles and chiles rellenos.
There are some 50 taquerias in KCK, a city of 150,000 where roughly one in four residents claims Latin American ancestry. That migration story began in the early 1900s, when laborers flowed in to work on the railroads, in stockyards and on farms. A second wave arrived in the late 20th century. Today, it's hard to go more than a few blocks along Central Avenue without spotting a sign in Spanish marking a taco shop, bakery or tortillería. Quinceañera gowns glitter in shop windows, their skirts fluffed wide with cotton candy tulle. Glass cases hold brilliant displays of paletas, fresh ice pops flavored with mango, cantaloupe, yellow cherry or currant. The area has had economic struggles—driving around, you'll see some boarded businesses—but the food scene is very much alive.
One longtime fan is Carlos Mortera. The chef owns Poi-Ō Mexican BBQ, a slick cafe specializing in whole chickens roasted over a wood fire and served with fresh tortillas, house salsas and pickled carrots. He also makes a mean kimchi fried rice. Mortera closed his first Poi-Ō Mexican BBQ during the pandemic, but he thrilled fans when he jumped from Missouri to Kansas and reopened in June, serving his specialties in airy new digs (with a drive-through). Mortera, who was born in Mexico and raised in Kansas, says that KCK is a uniquely welcoming and comfortable city for people with roots in Latin America. "I could always go to KCK when I felt homesick," he says. "It's so diverse, a mixture of different areas of Mexico and Latin America. And there is so much good food."
Marissa Gencarelli, a native of Sonora, Mexico, and owner of Yoli Tortillería, agrees. When she moved here, she says, she tried every restaurant around KCK, because it felt like home. Although her tortilla factory and storefront are in KCMO, she hops the river to KCK for certain ingredients for her own cooking, or for the pop-up events Yoli hosts with chefs from across the cities. "When I need groceries, I go to El Torito," she says. "I can get fresh epazote [a pungent medicinal herb], and from time to time they will have hoja santa [Mexican pepperleaf], which feels like I just won the lottery."
Before 2020, this concentration of Mexican (and Salvadoran, Cuban, Honduran and more) cuisine was a relative secret. Locals argue as much about who serves the best tacos as they do KC's more famous ribs or brisket, but travelers largely had no clue. A year ago, though, tourism leaders organized a Taco Trail, complete with prizes for hitting the most spots and a hashtag for sharing photos. Suddenly, everyone was talking tacos. Gimmicks aside, the trail website helps immensely in planning an eating adventure. Plus, in early fall, you can time a trip to the half-century-old Fiesta Hispana (September 11–12) or newer Latino Arts Festival (September 25), both held in KCMO. Or come November 6 to see KCK's joyous Día de Los Muertos parade, with enormous floats, costumes, music, dancing—and of course, food.
Most days here are more quiet, however. At Ninfa's Tortillas y Taqueria, cooks mix corn masa following the method of matriarch Ninfa Garza, a first-generation American who opened the restaurant in 1988 with her husband, Riley, and helped found Fiesta Hispana. Trains rumble outside while soccer or telenovelas play on TV. Like most of the stops on the Taco Trail, it's humble and comfortable, with a homey aroma of slow-cooked meat and chile sauce. You can eat well for not much and snag a souvenir on the way out—a bag of fresh tortillas or tamales for your freezer.
I'll have what she's having
A mouthwatering (if not comprehensive) glossary of eating well in Kansas City.
Adobada Marinated, usually in a smoky-tart red chile sauce
Al pastor Pork roasted on a spit, a "shepherd-style" method brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants
Ceviche Chopped raw seafood bathed in cilantro, onion, peppers and enough acidic citrus juice to effectively "cook" the fish
Horchata Sweet, cinnamony rice milk, served iced
Lengua Beef tongue, braised and chopped for tacos
Mondongo con coco A delightfully fun-to-say soup made with tripe and coconut
Panadería A bakery
Patas de cerdocon tajadas Slow-cooked pig trotters with fried plantains
Below, you'll find a small sampling of Mexican and Central American spots in Kansas City, Kansas (and one in Missouri). Find even more at visitkansascityks.com/tacotrail. If you race to rack up check-ins, you still have time to win T-shirts or Taco Trail Wall of Fame glory by October 31.
TASTE OF MEXICO
SUPERMART EL TORITO INC. This bustling market has a full-service meat counter, bakery and restaurant. Order tacos and take home freshly made salsa chilena (creamy green salsa).
EL CAMINO REAL Before you walk in, peek in the window, where staff toss freshly pressed tortillas on the griddle and pineapple juice drips down pork turning on a spit for tacos al pastor.
CARNICERÍA Y TORTILLERÍA SAN ANTONIO Buy stock bones, entire sides of beef, or a quart of slow-roasted barbacoa for taco night at home at this grocery, butcher shop and taqueria.
EL POLLO GUASAVE This humble yellow street-side stand serves perfectly spiced, rotisserie-grilled chicken, with salsas and warm corn tortillas.
YOLI TORTILLERÍA A darling of Kansas City chefs, Yolisells tortillas—both flour and stone-ground corn—from a bright shop in KCMO. You can also order online to have them shipped.
EL MENUDAZO Try the birria, a spicy, brothy stew native to the Jalisco region of Mexico that's traditionally made of goat. At El Menudazo, you can choose beef or lamb. The tender meat comes in a fried taco, with a dish of cooking juices for dipping.
NINFA'S TORTILLAS YTAQUERIA Ninfa's offers hearty, homestyle plates of enchiladas and tamales, plus all-day breakfast dishes like migitas—eggs scrambled with chopped corn tortilla, served with beans and potatoes.
In addition to a rainbow of ice pops, Paleterías Tropicana sells decadent ice cream treats and a full menu of braised meats, tacos and tamales.
CHIPS AND COINS This solid downtown KCK destination for Cuban and other Latin American specialties began as a modest bodega selling snacks and money orders (hence the name). Order roast pork with yuca, fricasseed cod or, naturally, the Cuban sandwich.
SABOR CENTROAMERICANO Sample hard-to-find dishes like Honduran mojarra frita al mojo de ajo (fish in garlic sauce) at this family-run restaurant.
LAS PALMAS RESTAURANT The giant menu spans Latin America. Our tip? Skip to the pupusa section to try this specialty of Guatemala and El Salvador—fried corn masa pockets stuffed with meat, shrimp, cheese, beans or zucchini.