Latin Bistro offers up heat, passion and smut 

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If you believe, as I do, that dining out is as much a theatrical experience as a culinary one, then you'll agree that the nine-month-old Latin Bistro and Culinary Center is a one-man show. The star? Tito Le Chef.

No, that's not his real name, but who cares about real names in show business? In Hollywood's golden age, movie stars commonly changed their drab, given names for something more glamorous. Archibald Leach was transformed into Cary Grant, Bernard Schwartz into Tony Curtis. So if a Yucatan native named Vasilio Dios wants a name to match his larger-than-life personality, then let him be Tito Le Chef.

Tito really needs an over-the-top stage production: musicians, showgirls, adorable trained Chihuahuas. His effervescent personality loses something in this dreary neighborhood north of the river. The Latin Bistro is located in two storefronts in the middle of one of the most unassuming retail strip centers on North Oak Trafficway. It's so nondescript that passing it is easy, even when you've been there before.

Tito and his business partner, Terry Faller, have recently redecorated the venue, but it's still a simple set. Despite its aspirations, the dining room doesn't really accommodate its star. The important thing, however, is that an exhibition kitchen is in the center of the room, where Tito can whirl around as he prepares his signature Mayan dishes — conchinita pibil, and a rich and dark chicken mole ("a mystical dish," he insists) — in front of an audience. Mounted right above the kitchen set is a TV monitor that plays a loop of beautiful photographs of Mexico, Yucatán, Mayan ruins, sumptuous dishes, and several shots of dimple-chinned Tito himself.

"He could be a movie star," says a friend of mine who's mad for the chef and his cuisine. "He's dark, handsome and dashing."

Tito flirts with his female patrons, charms the men, and prefers ordering for his customers rather than making suggestions. Sure, it's not every diner's cup of xocoatl, but it makes for an entertaining evening, and the food is as satisfying as the show.

The "culinary center" part of the restaurant's name explains the exhibition kitchen. Tito teaches classes here when he's not preparing meals. Tito taught for years in Mexican schools and hotel kitchens before moving to the United States. His student list these days includes housewives and Girl Scouts (which sounds like the plot of a sitcom pilot).

He can tell you a long, involved story explaining how he came to live in the hamlet of Gladstone, Missouri. It involves love, heartbreak, divorce, and the lease on the storefront that became his restaurant and cooking school. But that's not the kind of drama that serves him best. Tito wants the mood in his restaurant to be lively and upbeat. Bring on the cocktails! Bring out the corn fungus!

The Saturday night that I arrived at Latin Bistro with Richard and Linda and our friend Bonnie (a veteran Kansas City chef), we required festivity. It had been one of those weeks for each of us. Bonnie immediately ordered an icy margarita. Richard needed a beer, and Linda was parched for sangria. I sipped water and pored over the list of starters. There were guacamole and queso, but Bonnie would have neither.

"We must have the huitlacoche," she said. (Bonnie once lived briefly in Mexico.)

This unusual delicacy — called "Mexican corn truffle" on the menu and, less appetizingly, "corn smut" in many cookbooks — is a disease of the corn plant caused by a fungus, Ustilago maydis. It's prized for its savory, earthy flavor. (The Zuni believed that it induced labor; luckily, none of us was pregnant.) Tito adds the sooty smut to Monterey Jack cheese and epazote (more on this herb later) to make quesadillas — delicious quesadillas, with a meaty, woody taste that transcends the mere savory.

Bonnie wanted to taste Tito's mole, so we asked for a plate of moladas, too: warm, soft flour tortillas folded, dipped in the bittersweet, mahogany mole and sprinkled with bits of salty queso fresco. "It's not as sweet as poblano mole," Bonnie said, licking the sauce from her fingers. "Closer to mole negro, which is the richest version I've ever tasted."

Suddenly, Tito was at the table with a fistful of jagged green leaves: epazote, the tart herb that he uses in a number of his dishes. "Is it hallucinogenic?" I asked, somewhat hopefully. No, but the Aztecs believed that the herb had medicinal qualities. "It rids the body of worms," Tito said, "and gas from beans."

Well, there's something to be said for that.

Tito cooks his beans, by the way, in lard. "That's why they taste so good," Bonnie whispered. "Maybe not so good for you, but at least they're authentic."

Chef Tito takes great pride in authenticity. As at a couple of other traditional Mexican restaurants in the metro, Frida's and Ixtapa (Tito says he consulted on the menus for both of those places), there are no Tex-Mex dishes on Latin Bistro's menu. No crispy tacos, no Cheddar cheese. He prepares three different versions of a chile relleno, but the most popular is his roasted poblano served en nogada: stuffed with sauteed pork blended with dried fruits. It's divinely sweet, which is ideal if you crave a hint of sugar with your fiery peppers, along with pine nuts and a smooth, creamy pecan sauce.

"Where are the pomegranate seeds?" I asked.

"They're not in season," Tito said, fingering his mustache.

"Oh, yes, they are," Bonnie whispered.

Tito left us, epazote still in hand, to artfully open a glistening packet of tinfoil at another table, releasing a puff of spicy steam. Inside the foil cocoon was a heap of pink shrimp bubbling in a peppery red sauce. It looked so good, we ordered one, too. "This is an ancient Mayan sauce," Tito said when he brought out our foil purse. Who am I to argue? I thought, plucking up a shrimp with my fork. I was more impressed with his tender lamb chops, slathered with a gorgeous, supple concoction of tomato, onion and head-clearing epazote touched off with a hint of cream. We shared the chops, but I snagged the last one for myself, knowing that I'd never suffer worms or flatulence again. At least for that meal.

I had tasted Tito's slow-roasted marinated pork, conchinita pibil, before and I couldn't resist ordering it again. It's a visually beautiful, almost excessively delicious way to eat pig. The marinated meat is wrapped in a big, shiny, green banana leaf, carefully folded and roasted for more than eight hours until the meat is both tender and just barely crispy. I preferred mine plain, but Richard spooned Tito's deceptively kicky chipotle cream sauce over his.

Dessert? After all that? Tito swears that his house-made tres leches cake is the best in the city. It is very good and, yes, uniquely his own. Tito soaks a sheet cake, flavored with rum instead of Mexican vanilla, in whole milk, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk; the cake then gets blanketed with a layer of meringue and is lightly scorched with a blowtorch. It's a white cake on a white plate, so Tito does a wild Jackson Pollock number with the sauces: jade-green kiwi and summer-red strawberry. Tito bakes a dense chocolate layer cake, too, dripping with chocolate sauce and served with two scoops of Mexican vanilla ice cream.

My friends raved about Tito and his restaurant, as I knew they would. How could they not love such a showman? Tito Le Chef gives new meaning to the words dinner theater. He deserves a more glittering venue, but just wait — that's going to happen someday.

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