Lisa and Bernardino Lara make a homey little Mexican restaurant and market in a JoCo strip mall.

Their Casa es Su Casa 

Lisa and Bernardino Lara make a homey little Mexican restaurant and market in a JoCo strip mall.

Last fall, the Pitch did a cover story on the unexpected wonders to be discovered up and down Metcalf Avenue, the historic main artery of Overland Park ("Cruisin' the 'Calf," September 23, 2004). I was one of the writers who contributed to that project, and until then, it had never been one of my favorite streets. With a few exceptions, I thought Metcalf was a classic exercise in suburban sprawl: ugly architecture, whacked-out zoning, and every chain restaurant imaginable.

But a leisurely exploration of Metcalf can yield some culinary surprises where you least expect them. That's how a few of my friends stumbled upon the four-month-old Tienda Casa Paloma, a combination Mexican market and cantina. It may be the only place in town where you can get -- day or night -- buttermilk pancakes, soft-shell tacos, a St. Jude votive candle, fresh tomatillos, a can of coconut juice, a frosty glass bottle of grapefruit soda, and a container of dishwashing soap.

I first learned about the place from my friend Rick, who described it as "a cheery little Mexi grocery-bistro with a fresh salsa bar and good, cheap, fast, interesting food." He mentioned the things he had eaten there, including squash-blossom quesadillas, which triggered a flashback to a distant afternoon when I was sitting at an uncomfortable table but enjoying a cheesy quesadilla stuffed with squash blossoms. I'd bought it at a lunch counter with the same name, Tienda Casa Paloma, at Union Station. Was there a connection?

There is, though the story gets somewhat complicated. Lisa and Bernardino Lara opened the first Tienda Casa Paloma as a counter operation in the food court at Union Station in the winter of 2002, serving traditional American and Mexican breakfast dishes as well as tacos, tortas and quesadillas. Eighteen months later, the Laras moved out of the food court over a weekend, says a Union Station source, brazenly breaking their lease.

"We couldn't afford to stay in business there," Lisa says, "even though I loved the building and the connection we had with the historic old Harvey House room. But other restaurants kept closing around us. First the Chinese place, then Fitz's downstairs. And the lunch crowd coming into the food court kept dwindling."

After much acrimonious squabbling between the Laras and the Union Station administration (a source close to the negotiations contends that records actually show improvement in Tienda Casa Paloma's business), the parties have hammered out a financial settlement. "But no one has signed it yet," Lisa says.

Lisa is praying -- perhaps lighting one of those $2 candles to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases -- that the final settlement won't bankrupt the new business, which opened in January in surroundings distinctly less glamorous than Union Station. The dinky strip mall at 82nd Street and Metcalf isn't much to look at from the outside. Lisa, who lives a few blocks away, had barely noticed it herself until the day she made a wrong turn off Metcalf and saw a "for rent" sign on the low-slung building.

"I had been close to signing a lease for a place in Olathe, and it didn't work out," she says. "When I looked in the window at 8220 Metcalf, the owner came out to see what I was doing. We barked at each other and have been friends ever since."

The space had been vacated by a clothing store, but the Laras learned that at one point it had been a pizza joint -- so the existing plumbing, electrical work and a grease trap made the conversion into a small-scale restaurant almost economical. Still, while Bernardino worked to build the interior of the new market-bistro, Lisa took a job at the airport to pay the bills.

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