There's something about Kansas City's East Side that frightens off some diners. If I start extolling the virtues of a restaurant on this side of the metro, most people unfamiliar with the area get this strange glazed look in their eyes, as if I'm describing a restaurant in another galaxy instead of a 10-minute drive — if even that — from the Power & Light District.
Case in point: a little family-owned Mexican café called Chapala Restaurante Mexicano, on Truman Road. The problem isn't distance but size. If you're driving too fast on this stretch of Truman, well past Elmwood Cemetery, you'll easily miss the building, despite its vivid orange color. (I'm notoriously bad with directions, so I look for landmarks. The restaurant is just across the street from the campus of the Saint Paul School of Theology.)
My friend Jeff lives a few blocks from the restaurant. Ever since he discovered it a couple of years ago, he'd been concerned that Chapala's hardworking owner and cook, Martha Senda, wasn't doing enough business. After several years of closing after lunch, Senda resumed dinner service at Chapala only a few months ago. Senda won't say why she stopped cooking at night, but her regulars finally convinced her to stay open until 8 p.m.
The dinner traffic is sporadic, but that's part of the charm here. The customers who do come in for an evening meal chat with one another with the friendly reverence of those who share a small but valuable secret. On the night I dined with Linda and Richard, there was only one other occupied table — two teachers still wearing their school's identification tags — in the indigo-blue and pumpkin-colored dining room. As Linda read aloud the list of specials from the chalkboard, one of the teachers leaned over to inform us that she liked everything on the menu. I asked her if she had tasted everything (it's a pretty big menu). Almost everything, she said.
After three visits to Chapala, I haven't tried everything on the menu, but I've made a noble attempt. Chapala makes it easy to sample a variety of dishes; Senda keeps the prices relatively inexpensive. One night, Jeff and I just wanted a taste — not a meal — of Senda's ceviche, so we shared a $3.25 tostada topped with chunks of tart, lime-marinated tilapia, pico de gallo and bits of fresh avocado. The combination of the crunchy corn tortilla and the soft, tongue-puckering seafood was pretty fabulous.
Senda and her husband, along with other family members, rehabbed an empty building at 5224 Truman Road 11 years ago to create a colorful, pretty dining room and a large, spotlessly clean kitchen. Today, Chapala remains a family affair, and dining here is not unlike eating in someone's home. Martha (pronounced Marta) bustles around the kitchen while her youngest daughter, Irene (who's leaving soon to start a career in the Army), waits tables. Sometimes Martha's mother, Lupe, rolls up her sleeves and helps wash dishes. Near the kitchen, glass jars of horchata and orange-flavored agua de fresca color the room, and the aroma of freshly grilled corn tortillas wafts through the place.
The freshly made guacamole here — a simple combination of mashed avocado, onion and chopped tomatoes — was so light and creamy that I asked Irene twice whether she'd added a dairy product to the dip. (No, she assured me.) And when I ate here with a vegetarian, Senda promised us that the refried beans served with the vegetarian plates had been simmered with vegetable shortening. (Meat eaters get a more authentic version, with lard.) And the rice on the vegetarian plates is steamed with vegetable broth.
The queso dip is totally vegetarian-unfriendly — but delicious. Senda mixes her cheese sauce with lots of roasted pork to create a somewhat runny but tasty concoction that's outrageously good with the feather-light fried corn chips.
That night, I filled up on Senda's version of chilaquiles: not the layers of tortillas with spicy red salsa and queso fresca found in other local cantinas but a pile of freshly fried tortilla triangles smothered in a fiery, head-clearing, tomato-based salsa, cheese sauce and onions. (It would make an excellent hangover remedy.)
The street tacos were so cheap that I ordered a couple of those, too: one with excellent pork carnitas folded inside a soft flour tortilla, the other filled with succulent birria — but roasted beef, not goat — richly flavored with smoky chiles. I later learned that if you prefer the more traditional goat, Senda serves it; it's just not on the menu.
Senda takes special care with her sauces. The mole here is sumptuous: dark and rich, just slightly sweet, with a hint of cocoa and mild poblano peppers. One of the best comfort foods I've tasted is the mole draped over fork-tender pieces of chicken that are pressed into the center of a warm flour or corn tortilla. The jade-green tomatillo sauce — much brassier than the red salsa — is delicious over an enchilada verde or the cheesier version, enchiladas Suizas.
Among the better-selling lunch dishes here are the hot sandwiches, tortas, served on round, yeasty rolls from Elvira's Cakes, a bakery on Independence Avenue. The three-meat, Cubano-style creation comes heaped with marinated pork, a slice of beef tenderloin, a piece of ham, and gooey melted cheese — all topped, not particularly Havana-style, with lettuce, tomatoes, onion, avocado slices and hot jalapeños. It's cheaper than anything you'll find at a sub shop, and it's big. I took half home.
The good news is that you can get a late start on that monster. Chapala may be the only restaurant I know of that offers inexpensive lunch specials after 2 p.m. (Senda charges a dollar extra, but it's still a bargain.)
Senda lists desserts on the blackboard but not on the menu: a custardy flan, fried sopapillas, and an all-American ice-cream sundae. "The ice-cream sundae is what most children want," she says, "and they order the most desserts."
Now that I've discovered this place, I might as well eat everything on the menu at least once, including dessert.