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.

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