Fittingly, you don't usually spend a wad of cash on Mexican food at fast-food places or full-service spots; the enormous popularity of this south-of-the-border cuisine is linked, historically, to its inexpensive prices. In America Eats Out, his history of American restaurants, John Mariani explains that the first taco stands to open up in this country were found mostly in the South and West. They served "cheap, belly-filling food without much finesse from readily available ingredients, and the proverbial 'hole in the wall' connotes the image of the Mexican-American restaurant more than it does any other ethnic eatery."
It's true that in Kansas City there are plenty more no-frills Mexican restaurants than fancy places. The Texas-based Mi Cocina (620 W. 48th St.) on the Country Club Plaza is one of the few upscale-yet-traditional Mexican restaurants. And there are plenty of snazzy-looking joints (like the Plaza's Canyon Cafe, which looks like a set from The Big Valley) serving that hybrid cuisine known as Tex-Mex or Southwest cooking.
But what does that mean, exactly? Mariani calls Tex-Mex "an amalgam of Northern Mexican peasant fare with Texas farm and cowboy fare." His best example is chili, a combination of cooked beef, spices, and beans that is, Mariani says, "unknown in Mexico."
Other dishes found in Mexican restaurants are also purely American inventions, such as the chimichanga and nachos, which were reportedly invented at the Dallas State Fair in 1964. Nachos, in all of their many incarnations, have become such an all-American staple that a friend of mine who recently attended a wedding reception at a VFW hall was served the ball-park version, complete with a plastic tray, salty corn chips, and that rubbery neon goop that passes as "cheese" sauce.
And you never know where a new Mexican joint is going to pop up. When La Mediterranee, the faux-elegant French restaurant at 9058 Metcalf, closed its doors a couple of years ago, leaving the expensively upholstered banquettes and tinkly glass chandeliers behind, the subsequent tenant, La Mesa Mexican Restaurant, merely incorporated those features into its wacky decorating scheme. It doesn't matter that the woodwork at La Mesa is now a garish green and red and that instead of in tasteful glass stemware, drinks come in big red plastic tumblers. But there's still a quaint, shabby genteel air to the place.
Even better: The etched-glass panel with the La Mediterranee name and regal crest is still in the foyer, not totally hidden behind a bouquet of fake flowers and a candy machine. La Mediterranee had formal, tasteful service (even if some of the waiters frequently wore starched shirts and black tuxedo pants dribbled with crumbs and food stains), while at La Mesa the servers are more casually (and tidily) dressed, and their service is perfunctory and sometimes rude.
But the lunch specials are generous, the price is always right, and the tacos are good.