RESTAURANT REVIEW

Street tacos settle in at Taco Republic

Updated: 2014-02-05T23:45:21Z

By JILL WENDHOLT SILVA

The Kansas City Star

From the get-go, the idea of street tacos sold from a former gas station re-imagined as a hip, roadside taqueria had a certain quirky appeal.

“Yes! I love gas station restaurants,” my friend responded when I asked her to meet me at Taco Republic, the latest addition to Bread & Butter Concepts, creators of BRGR, Urban Table and Gram & Dun.

Since 2010, Bread & Butter co-founder and chief executive Alan Gaylin has churned out interesting and affordable concepts in a slow economy. He was recently named Restaurateur of the Year by the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association. But with the continued march of Chipotle and the impending crunch of local independents like Jose Pepper’s soon-to-open Tortilla Ranch Mexican Grill, the street taco bandwagon is about to get crowded.

While construction was delayed over the summer, Taco Republic rolled out a food truck. Whether to up the taqueria’s street cred or simply pump up its marketing plan — hey, they have a full-time social media guy and an in-house webmaster — the mobile unit stirred up plenty of buzz. After the eatery’s opening in late September, parking was a snarl.

These days, signs offer overflow parking across the street at a neighboring business. But not wanting to play too many hours of beanbag toss or loll in an Adirondack chair stationed in the red-sand courtyard, I made my first pit stop at 3 p.m., which meant parking was a breeze, and I was ravenous after working through the lunch hour.

The old gas station’s odd footprint dictates an unusual dining layout more conducive to the fair weather feeding of Gaylin’s native Texas than the soup-pot stirrings of Kansas City in fall and winter. Diners take seats on painted metal stools at the bar, a metallic-olive banquette or retro-style wire cage chairs with bright orange and turquoise cushions.

There’s also seating in an enclosed outdoor bay. On balmier days, the tarp-like sides can be rolled up. In 32-plus degree weather, 16 heaters keep the space warm enough. Below 32? Well, let’s just say business plummets. Even in the gentler breezes, the see-through tarp walls flapped distractingly against the sides of the Formica table as I tried to study the menu.

As you might expect, most of the taco fillings are meat-centric, stewed or braised, then ladled into soft white corn tortillas. Per-taco prices are $2.50 to $3.50.

“Would you like any chips or dip or fresh guacamole to get your meal started?” asked the young female server, who was wearing a “Guac This Way!” T-shirt.

I knew a whole basket of chips was too much for one, and given my mid-afternoon hunger I wanted to avoid a battle with self-control. I asked my server to recommend a few favorites from the 16 filling options, and she was diplomatic, ending with the buena terra, an intriguing vegetarian version filled with hearts of palm.

Hearts of palm are the milky white centers of the palmetto palm tree. Their thick stalks are similar in texture to asparagus but are typically cut into rounds and served raw in an appetizer or salad. In this case, the tender rounds were breaded and deep-fried until they resembled firm tater tots, then garnished with a ruffle of cilantro and a squirt of spicy aioli.

The taco was tasty, although the subtlety of the palm heart was largely masked by the preparation.

All Bread & Butter restaurants offer a variation of the Jackson, a New Orleans-inspired salad featuring hearts of palm. Asked if there were any plans to try sauteing or grilling the hearts of palm, Gaylin mentioned some R&D going on in the kitchen, not only to make it a healthier option, but also to relieve pressure on the deep fryers, which run overtime to keep up with demand for chips.

Of course, one street taco does not make a meal: Plan on a minimum of three. I also tried the papi, with chunks of marinated tenderloin filling with chimichurri (an Argentinean parsley-based condiment), grilled corn, caramelized onion and peppers, plus a sprinkling of queso fresco, which was fine if unremarkable.

The chicken mole had a hearty, brick-red sauce with chunks of slightly dry chicken topped with a nice, crunchy chipotle slaw.

Taco-wise, I had only kicked the tires, so one Sunday evening I gathered up a crowd. We were seated in the outdoor dining area with Cedric, a server who steered our crew of teens and adults through the menu. When I tried to order the fundido for the table, Cedric insisted on the Jose, a five-cheese queso served with tortilla chips, and led us to the larger of two sizes.

We also ordered guacamole, which was so fresh I assumed it was made to order, and a seafood ceviche, which included surprisingly meaty planks of tilapia and plump curls of shrimp garnished with fresh avocado and a wedge of lime. Several people at the table had never tried ceviche and found the dish enjoyable.

I was surprised when a carnivorous friend volunteered to order the buena terra and the hongos, another vegetarian option. We both enjoyed the mellow, earthy flavors of the cremini mushrooms, ramped up with jalapeno puree, queso fresco and chipotle slaw. He added a shot of fiery orange Cholula pepper sauce for good measure.

I was surprised I favored the vegetarian tacos, so I ordered the tocino for a truly blunt comparison. Tender cubes of striped pork belly arrived napped in salsa verde and garnished with airy bits of chicharrones, which are lightish pork rinds, if there is such a thing. The flavor was meaty, smoky and crunchy. I would recommend this one for hard-core bacon fans.

The menu also includes several “non-taco” options, which added variety but were not always executed up to par. The pork tamales were dry, and the side of ranchero beans was overly salty. A torta offered tender grilled tenderloin chunks dressed with chimichurri, but the traditional cottony bolillo bun overwhelmed the filling.

More interesting was the Frito pie, a spicy chorizo chili-style dish studded with the signature salty chips, then topped with shredded Chihuahua cheese and wagon wheels of jalapeno. The dish is served in a cast-iron pan, the “pie” spilling out of an open Fritos wrapper, a clever presentation for a dish I hadn’t seen since I left Texas two decades ago. But not everyone at the table agreed with my (and Gaylin’s) nostalgic fondness for it.

I’d also give a nod to the roasted chicken, rubbed red with spices, which was moist but accompanied by charro beans that were also salty.

The list of sides is short, including rice, charro (beans with meat) and ranchero (vegetarian beans) as well as the traditional street fare, elotes. The grilled corn-on-the-cob arrived picture-pretty, slathered in a blanket of cilantro mayo and cotija cheese with a cob “handle” for easy eating. Sadly, the corn was unpleasantly starchy; I’d order elotes only in the summertime when sweet corn is in season.

After an hour of contented grazing, the teens were craving sopaipillas, which are not on the menu. Cedric suggested the bunuelos, square puffs of deep-fried pastry sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. Those hit the spot, even if the thin pineapple glaze failed to interest the kids.

Even better: the cinnamon sugar-spiked churros, which are served with a thin Mexican chocolate sauce and have a faintly spicy back note.

“But are the churros as good as the ones at Costco?” a friend asked after my visit.

That, I think, depends on whether you want authentic chocolate dipping sauce.

Taco Republic

500 County Line Road

Kansas City, Kan.

913-262-8226

EatTacoRepublic.com, Facebook and Twitter.

Star ratings

Food: ★★  An inexpensive menu that offers good variety but spotty execution.

Service: ★★★  Knowledgeable and friendly wait staff.

Atmosphere: ★★½ Clever reuse of space with interesting enclosed outdoor eating bay.

Hours: Walk-up window: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Sunday; 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Kitchen: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m-10 p.m. Sunday.

Business: 11 a.m.-1:30 a.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m.-1:30 a.m. Saturday and 8 a.m.-midnight Sunday.

Entree average (including nightly specials): $

Vegetarian options: Guacamole, Jose (five-cheese dip), buena terra (hearts of palm) and hongos (mushroom) tacos, elotes, rice and beans.

Handicapped accessible: Two front-row parking spots, a ramp and accessible entrances and exits.

Parking: The small Taco Republic lot can fill up quickly. Look for signed parking in adjacent business lots during night and weekend hours.

Kids: This is definitely a family-friendly restaurant. The “Little Porkers” menu for kids under 9, includes a choice of cheese quesadillas, wood-fired chicken leg or ground beef taco with a choice of applesauce, rice, beans, chips and a drink for $6.

Noise level: Lively but easy to have a conversation and never boisterous.

Reservations: No

Star code: ★  Fair, ★★  Good, ★★★  Excellent, ★★★★  Extraordinary

Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.

Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. The Star pays for review meals.

What to drink

One of the hard knocks on the ever-popular margarita? Many bars make them way too sweet. The opposite is true at Taco Republic, where the Casa and the Royal (with Gran Gala) get their meager sweetness from agave simple syrup. Even the Tequila Sunrise cocktail, although lovely to look at, had an exceptionally puckery note. The restaurant also offers beer in cans, bottles and on tap, as well as sangria, cocktails and premium tequilas.

Recommended

Ceviche, $8

Tocino taco, $3.50

Buena terra and hongos vegetarian tacos, $2.95 each

Wood-fired chicken, $9.95.

(The half or full chicken is available at the window 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.

The half chicken plate is available inside, table service, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.)

Churros, $5

From the get-go, the idea of street tacos sold from a former gas station re-imagined as a hip, roadside taqueria has a certain quirky appeal. Of course, one street taco does not make a meal: Plan on a minimum of three.

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