"If there were Mexican restaurants around Kansas City in the 1940s and '50s, I don't remember them," says my friend Shifra Stein, a former restaurant reviewer for The Kansas City Star, echoing a comment I've heard from other friends who came of age before the explosion of Mexican restaurants that rippled across the Midwest in the 1970s. "I never saw a tamale," says my retired friend Richard Phelps, "until I moved out on my own. Even if there had been lots of Mexican restaurants in Kansas City -- and I don't think there were -- my parents, who had very basic tastes, wouldn't have taken us to one. Nor to a Chinese restaurant. If we went out to eat in the 1960s, we went to a fried chicken house or to a drive-in for hamburgers. And that was a big thing."
So while Bob and I stood in Dos Reales' tiny lobby, waiting in line for a table at the five-month-old Overland Park restaurant, I couldn't help but contemplate how the world had changed. It was only 6 p.m. and the place was packed. "In just a few decades," I told him, "Mexican food has become more popular than chicken or hamburgers."
And just as bland. The National Restaurant Association reported last year that the demand for tacos, burritos and the like had moved Mexican food out of the specialized "ethnic food" category and into the mainstream. Okay, so maybe no one (myself included) wants to sample that ancient Oaxacan delicacy called chapulines -- toasted grasshoppers -- along with a frozen margarita. But when did a crock of refried beans with melted cheese, a concoction as colorless and flavorless as sludge, become so celebrated?
Bean dip, nachos and combination plates are what customers want. And by mixing familiar Americanized dishes with a few unexpected offerings -- such as an excellent, piquant green sauce -- Alvero Quezada has created a mini-empire that includes Sol Azteca on Southwest Boulevard, the Dos Reales on 75th Street and another Dos Reales that opened last week at Quivira and Shawnee Mission Parkway. (Two Illinois restaurants also boast the Dos Reales name: Quezada's first eatery in Champaign and one in Rockford.)
The Dos Reales on 75th Street is a glam Mexican restaurant by Kansas City standards, with tile floors and walls the color of tropical fruits. On Friday nights, the Doug Nelson Duo plays live renditions of "La Bamba," "Feliz Navidad" and rock hits from the 1950s and '60s. "Oh, look!" a friend of mine squealed when the requisite appetizers arrived. "You know it's upscale when the chips come in wicker baskets."
Dos Reales' spiral-bound menu is elaborate -- and has color photographs, like a Waffle House -- but most of the dishes are variations on tried-and-true Mexican-American standards. That's one reason it's so crowded. The food is comfortably familiar and contains no hint of the distinctive spices Mexican cooks use to counter the heat of a really hot chile pepper: cloves, bay leaf, European oregano, thyme.