So maybe I won't go there this year. But I can at least sample Venezuela's cuisine just by crossing the Missouri border and visiting Wyandotte County. Over in Kansas City, Kansas, restaurateur José Garcia -- a native of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city -- is always in good spirits. After nearly two decades working for local restaurants (his lengthy résumé ranges from oyster shucker at the old downtown Lobster Pot to chef at the Grille on Broadway), Garcia opened his own little joint, Café Venezuela, five months ago. Business has been good.
Romance brought 43-year-old Garcia to Kansas City, Kansas, from Mississippi (where he was attending college) twenty years ago. "I fell in love with a girl from Peru and followed her here," he says. "It didn't work out, but I stayed anyway." Along the way, Garcia has worked in dozens of restaurants, married Caracas-born Eva, and fathered three children
The move from employee to entrepreneur wasn't a particularly complicated transition. One afternoon last year, Garcia stopped in for a cup of espresso at the tiny diner at 719 Central that housed his friend Jorge Manan's Cuban Corner Café. Manan had already negotiated to move his business from the narrow ten-stool diner (which had opened as the Neighborhood Grill in the 1950s) to a long-vacant convenience store on the other side of the street.
"Jorge said to me, 'I think you should take this over and serve Venezuelan food,'" explains Garcia. "It was a very good idea, you know, because I could start business with very little money. In fact, I didn't even buy a new sign. I just took his old sign down, painted it over and then painted my own sign."
Garcia hasn't done much to the décor of the old diner, either. He hasn't put up any religious icons -- which had been an integral part of the Cuban Corner Café's design motif -- but he did tack the blue, red and yellow Venezuelan flag to one of the paneled walls, along with a map of his native country, a couple of T-shirts boasting the restaurant's logo, and two or three empty burlap coffee bags. A TV (tuned to American soap operas during weekday lunch shifts) is still perched on top of a cooler filled with soft drinks, and a portable radio on the back counter is tuned to a local Hispanic music station.
As combination manager-server-busboy, Garcia oversees the counter traffic himself (with the help of a friend on weekend nights) and has two employees cooking in the kitchen. In such close quarters, the hustle and bustle can be comical from the vantage point of a revolving stool. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, pots, plates and God only knows what else repeatedly crashed to the kitchen floor; Garcia would cringe theatrically while customers stared in the direction of the kitchen for a half-second before they shrugged and continued eating.