There's a Mexican revolution taking place in Kansas City. It's not a violent revolution but a culinary war, where Tex-Mex — masquerading as Mexican cuisine for decades — is finally giving way to the more authentically prepared south-of-the-border dishes.
The revolution recruited a new foot soldier when 24-year-old Joel Palacios came to Kansas City from Omaha, Nebraska, where his parents settled after emigrating from Jalisco, Mexico. He arrived to work at Ixtapa, one of two decidedly non-Tex Mexican restaurants owned by his brother-in-law, Alejandro Hernandez. But after six years, Palacios decided that he wanted his own cantina.
He mentioned the idea to his brother, Sergio, who was still in Omaha working as a mechanic. Sergio liked the concept, so he moved to Kansas City, too, and the brothers soon found themselves driving around, scouting locations.
"We got off 70 Highway and took the exit to Blue Springs, which we had never heard of before, and we stopped in at a Mexican restaurant," Sergio says. "[We] saw that the kind of Mexican food they were serving was burritos and tacos.
"Then we went to another Mexican restaurant in the same neighborhood, and they were only serving burritos and tacos. My brother and I looked at each other and said, 'This community needs us!'"
Yes, Blue Springs does need a place such as Real Jalisco, where the Palacios brothers are serving both familiar Tex-Mex (tacos, chimichangas and taco salads) and their mother's recipes from her native Jalisco.
In fact, the entire metro may need a place such as Real Jalisco, where Joel and Sergio greet customers, wait tables, tend bar, bus dishes, and do whatever else needs to be done. They painted the interior of the storefront dining room themselves, making over what had been another Mexican restaurant, Torero's Mexican Restaurant. They had the old booths reupholstered, and they hung sepia-tinted vintage photographs (of old Jalisco, of course) on the tomato-red walls.
It's not a fancy dining room, but when the place is full, as it frequently is, the mood is distinctly upbeat. Most of the clientele, Sergio says, comes from the surrounding neighborhoods. When the two brothers see familiar faces, they make sure to acknowledge the loyalty, even remembering where the customers sat on previous visits.
The two men have never heard of Joe Gilbert — Kansas City's late, iconic restaurateur who founded the Gilbert/Robinson empire — but they intuitively operate by his principle: Treat your customers as if they were friends and give them, no matter how difficult, what they want.
There is, however, one caveat at Real Jalisco: Joel and Sergio happily serve the familiar Tex-Mex combination platters that Midwesterners love but, with contagious enthusiasm, they deftly encourage patrons to order outside their comfort zone.
Their efforts seem to be working: The best-selling dish at the restaurant isn't one of those combination plates but carne en su jugo, a soupy stew of slow-cooked marinated beef and beans in a robust tomatilla broth. The beans in this splendid entree are simmered with onions and bits of bacon and ham, so it's a hearty choice for a cold Midwestern night, especially served alongside fried corn tortillas. I spooned the stew onto soft flour tortillas instead, but it would be sensational (albeit less authentic) served with rice to soak up every luscious drop of the flavorful "juice" of its title.
My dining companion, Crystal, didn't taste the stew — she's a vegetarian. We had earlier shared two meatless starters, both quesadillas. The Flor de Calabaza version is made with sauteed squash blossoms. The Quesadilla Jalisco, meanwhile, is tastefully described as "corn mushroom" but is better known as huitlacoche, the black fungus that grows on corn and has been harvested as a delicacy for decades. (The name comes from an Aztec term that translates as "raven's excrement.") It looks enough like black beans that it's easy to ignore the fungal reality.
Crystal has been looking for the perfect vegetarian burrito for years and she was ready to order the Real Jalisco creation, but our server, Joel Palacios, wanted her to be a little more adventurous.
"Try the Enchiladas de Nopalitos," he urged her. "You've never eaten a cactus enchilada before, have you?"
She hadn't but was game. I like any dish with cactus, but the texture of the mushy green strips can be a turnoff for the uninitiated. Sometimes the nopales — the young pads of a prickly pear cactus — look like overcooked green beans, but the fresh, tart taste is a refreshing alternative to the usual medley of mushrooms, peppers, chopped tomatoes and corn that's found in Mexican vegetarian fare.
Cactus also happens to be low in carbs, but not the Real Jalisco variety, which is wrapped in corn tortillas. It's also blanketed with cheese — too much queso for health-conscious Crystal, but I thought it was just right.
When I returned to the restaurant on a busy Friday night, it was clear that most of the patrons in the dining room were regulars. Joel and Sergio Palacios worked the room, cheerily acknowledging familiar faces.
I was dining with Martha and Carol Ann, but I arrived much later than they did because my directions — thank you, Google Maps! — seemed to think I took a detour to St. Louis. (The actual route? Very simple: Interstate 70 to the Highway 7 exit. Turn left. Arrive at destination. Order margarita.)
I was ravenous when I arrived and ate a good third of Martha's meal — Steak Miraplanes — as soon as I sat down. It's another beef-and-tomatillo number, this time with fork-tender chunks of beef sauteed with cactus and onions in a kickier tomatilla sauce than the earlier jugo version. Martha preferred the sizzling dish without tortillas. I folded the beef into a flour tortilla and lavishly spooned the house pico de gallo on top. Delicious.
Carol's Pollo con Crema — a moist chicken breast smothered in a rich, smooth wine-and-cream sauce — was delectable, a nice counterpoint to the chicken entree I had ordered for myself: Pollo Marinado a la Parillo, which looked more fiery than it tasted. The red achiote-paste marinade was actually a wonderfully complicated seasoning of peppercorns, cloves, coriander, garlic, cumin and orange juice, and it seductively soaked through a chicken breast that was pounded nearly flat before grilling. It was another of the Real Jalisco house especialidades that really was something special.
Like the dessert menu at Ixtapa and Frida's, the Real Jalisco offers cool, soothing sweets as a finale to a spicy meal: a silky flan, dripping with an amber caramel sauce, and an excellent nondairy "ice cream" made with atole, the starchy liquid left after cooking masa for tamales. (It tastes just as wonderful as the real thing.)
But staying real — to their Mexican traditions and culinary roots — is what Joel and Sergio Palacios are all about. And Blue Springs — indeed, the whole damn metro — is lucky to have them around.