No, no, the new Caliente Grille on 39th Street has no connection to the short-lived Cuban restaurant, Caliente, which came and went so quickly at Wyandotte County's Legends complex that I never got a chance to eat there. According to friends of mine who did dine there, I didn't miss much. Caliente, it wasn't.
In Spanish, caliente means hot or spicy — or in the more slangy vernacular: sexually desirable or downright horny. I'd certainly be thrilled to find a restaurant where I could experience all of those qualities, but in Kansas City, I'm still looking.
Most Kansas City diners prefer less fiery Mexican-American fare than the more potent dishes prepared with the hotter habañero, catarina or onza roja chile found in more authentic Mexican restaurants. The Caliente Grille, owned by Marijo Goetz and her daughter, Patrice Seeger (a veteran of Tortilla Flats and Dos Hombres), doesn't pretend to be a little slice of Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec city that's now Mexico City. What Goetz and Seeger wish to create is a cozy little neighborhood joint that sells modestly priced tacos, burritos and combination plates. Some of the servers wear gray T-shirts printed with the restaurant's logo and these words: "Spicing things up!" But the food isn't particularly spicy or even caliente, for that matter — and that's exactly why I feel confident that this restaurant will be successful.
Marijo Goetz (no relation to the M.K. Goetz family that once brewed Country Club Beer in St. Joseph and Kansas City) is as Irish as a plate of colcannon; her great-grandfather was Ed Flavin, the founder of Browne's Irish Market. "We hire very good Mexican cooks," she explained to my friend Carol Ann, while setting down a little cup of this restaurant's "hot" salsa with a basket of tortilla chips. The hotter salsa is definitely punchier than the sweeter, redder concoction, though still a disappointment for those who prefer a more ass-kicking sauce.
But only a mild disappointment. Once I accepted the fact that the Caliente Grille was designed to be a casual-dining venue in the spirit of popular Tex-Mex restaurants such as Dos Hombres or Jose Peppers, I began to feel a real fondness for the place.
I've always liked the location, an underdog spot in a small strip mall a few blocks too far east of 39th Street's Restaurant Row. The storefront was previously occupied by Wendy and Martin Rudderforth's charming Pangea Café & Market, which closed last December. That little world-food bistro was a lot more exotic than its successor, and occasionally a customer still wanders in looking for it. After Goetz and Seeger took over the lease, they put up a wall closing off the exhibition kitchen and created a bar running along the east side of the dining room. The walls are the same sunny yellow, though it seems several shades brighter now. "People always say that," Goetz says, "but I think it's the same color."
It wasn't cheap to eat at Pangea, even during lunch. But Caliente's prices are barato. Most of the meals on the menu are under 10 bucks, unless you decide to splurge on one of the three fajita platters, which range from $10.99 to $14.99.
The night I dined with Carol Ann, she ordered the steak fajitas and was delighted with the sizzling metal platter heaped with slices of tender, flavorful beef, onion and peppers; sided by a mound of rice with soupy beans; and served with soft tortillas, sour cream and a rollicking pico de gallo. "It's good beef," she said, offering me a chunk. "Seriously tender, not cheap and chewy like some of the chain restaurants."
I wanted to try something completely different, so I ordered something I don't think I've seen in a local Tex-Mex joint: a fajita sandwich. It turned out to be a combination of grilled chicken, sautéed peppers and onion, and melted Jack cheese on a toasted bun that was so good, I half-expect to see it on a Taco Bell or McDonald's menu anytime now. (For a side, I opted for refried beans in lieu of fries.)
We didn't order dessert that night, though Caliente Grille offers several. No, I didn't think about dessert until a balmy Friday night when I dined out on the tiny patio with Bob and Kimberlee. That was a much more adventurous experience. We started out with the cheesy Caliente dip — you know, queso sauce, not too spicy — and an extremely fresh-tasting, chunky guacamole, heavily laden with bits of chopped onions and tomato. Alas, it had a little too much going on for Kimberlee: "I don't like guacamole this chunky," she sniffed.
But Kimberlee also ordered the most boring and Midwestern dish of any in the Tex-Mex repertoire: a taco salad. "It's so Applebee's," I told her. But like so many of my friends, she was trying to "eat healthier," and for some reason, that always seems to require a heap of tasteless iceberg lettuce.
Bob decided he was eating healthier, too, which meant that he ate lots of chips with guacamole and cheese dip and ordered a thick, cheesy quesadilla stuffed with both chicken and beef. It was grilled fajita-style with onions and pepper. "I'll take most of it home," he explained. That's what healthy eaters do, I guess.
Me? I, too, was eating with good health in mind and chose this restaurant's vegetarian burrito ("All the good stuff without the meat!" according to the menu), a soft tortilla wrapped around a hefty portion of sautéed green and red peppers, onions, beans, cheese and pico de gallo, and slathered in queso sauce. After a half-dozen bites, I was waving the white flag, too. It was plenty tasty, but this time I wanted to save a little room for dessert.
"We have very good fried ice cream," our server said. Since I've never had good fried ice cream anywhere, I asked for other options. She explained that they also served house-made sopapillas and churros. More fried stuff! We settled on the sopapillas, which arrived with great flourish: little pastry pillows heavily dusted with cinnamon and sugar and served with a cup of honey. "For dipping," the server explained.
The hollow pastry pillows were irritatingly chewy — the one I tasted had the consistency of cinnamon-sugar jerky. But they were magnificently sweet. "They need something," Kimberlee said as she dunked one of the pillows into the honey. "Maybe just the tiniest pinch of something spicy. Like cayenne?"
They need a different recipe, if you ask me. But I'm always up for any dish — even dessert — to be a little spicier. And that's my suggestion to this promising new restaurant: Turn up the heat, baby! If patrons want to get in the Caliente kind of mood, why not really start a fire down below?
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