In the landlocked Midwest, we tend to find ourselves fantasizing about exotic seasides.
But even if you live miles from an ocean, you can transport yourself to lush locales through a sensory experience at Jarocho Pescados y Mariscos, a 5-month-old Mexican seafood spot in Kansas City, Kan.
“Jarocho” is a term used to describe the people of Veracruz.
Walk into the restaurant and it looks no different than any of many other small taquerias and carnicerias scattered throughout the city. But sit down at one of the booths and study the menu: Don’t expect the standard tacos, burritos or enchiladas and no items smothered in yellow cheese.
Instead, you will find an array of seafood options that rival many high-end restaurants that specialize in such fare. ceviches, oysters, seafood cocktails, whole fish and items like octopus fill out the choices, along with daily specials, in which the quality of the ingredients is nothing short of excellent.
The man leading this guided culinary tour through the tastes of the Mexican seaside is chef Carlos Falcon, a native of Veracruz. Falcon uses an assortment of remarkably fresh seafood and fish, in combination with classical French training and technique, to serve up a spin on the flavors of his youth.
My first visit was on a chilly weeknight evening. The Ceviche Jarocho came first, a bowl of Colorado-sourced fresh tilapia swimming in a slightly spiced, tomato-based sauce with just the right hint of citrus. It was served with a basket of packaged saltines, although I found myself reaching for chips for a crisp contrast.
The tilapia was cut in just the right dice for a firm but yielding texture. The tomato base was thicker than many ceviches I have had due to the housemade ketchup, which makes for a heartier mouth feel, but also one that melded perfectly with the spices.
An order of aguachiles offered a refreshing citrus punch. Thick rounds of cucumber and red onion offered crunch to contrast the sweet bits of crab meat in a sauce of lime juice, chiles and cilantro. This dish appears on the menu with raw shrimp but can be made with crab, and I must say that both versions are equally delightful.
“I feel like I am on a beach eating this,” were the words my friend used to sum it up.
An order of freshly sauteed prawns split in half like tiny lobsters rounded out the meal. The prawns were accompanied by a lovely sauce with heat (a mix of garlic, shallots and a variety of mildly spicy chilies) and texture (thinned with a luxurious lobster stock).
Many of the dishes at Jarocho feature shell- and head-on shellfish or whole fish with bones, so be advised that some dishes may require a bit of work. For instance, the shrimp cucarachas dish arrived with a pile of head- and shell-on shrimp cooked in a fiery chipotle sauce. It makes for a messy and labor-intensive dish requiring a stack of napkins, but peeling each one gave the essence of the high-quality shrimp in every bite.
On another visit, an order of whole fried sea bass was served with head and tail on, which can be intimidating to some diners. Fear not, though. Again, the results are worth the effort. The flesh was moist and succulent under the crispy fried shell of skin.
If you aren’t used to bones, you may need some instruction on how best to release the filets. Overall, the waitresses are very friendly, even if they did not always appear to be familiar with some of the ingredients or techniques. Still, don’t be afraid to ask for help to avoid marring an otherwise lovely bite.
One of the most popular dishes at Jarocho are the oysters, which are on special on Tuesdays and now Thursdays for $1 each. Plan ahead: the restaurant is usually packed. The fresh oysters are delightfully briny and are served with a sauce of tomato, onion, lime and cilantro emboldened with more of that lobster stock.
There is also a nice dish of baked oysters, a decadent dish of oysters, meaty bits of shrimp, octopus and crab mixed with aged Monterey Jack cheese. Cheese and seafood are not classic pairings, but Chef Carlos likes to break the rules at times, and he’s not wrong with this dish.
When I asked him to describe the more elusive taste elements in some of his dishes, I took note of ingredients like butter, fish sauce and Thai bird chilies, all subtle infusions from cuisines other than classic Mexican, but also in keeping with his classic French training and his interest in Asian cuisines, such as Thai and Japanese.
While it’s common for chefs these days to use a fusion of techniques and ingredients from different cuisines, I found it particularly interesting that these departures don’t stand out so much as play off the more traditional flavors of the cuisine.
This thoughtful approach and delicate touch is a good example of what I found to be so welcome in the food at Jarocho. It may not be fine dining in the white tablecloth sense, but it is fine food made with an eye on great ingredients and precise technique.
The restaurant has its eccentricities like French fries, rice and shredded iceberg salad served with all of the entrees; or the interesting decor choices such as the pinatas and plastic crabs on the wall.
But serve me a plate of perfectly cooked prawns or exceedingly fresh crab aguachiles and I can block all the rest out, and take myself to the rolling waves and beaches of Mexico.
Jarocho Pescados y Mariscos
719 Kansas Ave.
Kansas City, Kan. 66105
Food: Three stars.
Atmosphere: Two stars.
Service: Two and a half stars.
Hours: Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Entrée Average: $$$
Vegetarian options: Limited mostly to sides like guacamole, chips and salsa, rice, fries, salad.
Kids: No separate kids menu. Many starters and dinner specialties are big enough to split and share, though be advised many shrimp and fish dishes come whole with shell on or bone in.
Parking: Private lot
Handicap Accessible: Yes
Star code: One star-Fair, Two stars-Good, Three stars-Excellent, Four stars-Extraordinary
Price code: $-Average entree under $10; $$-under $20; $$$-under $30; $$$$-over $30.
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.
What to Drink
Jarocho does offer a selection of domestic and import beers, including a selection of Mexican beers like Corona, Modelo Especial and Modelo Negro to pair with the vibrant, tropical fresh flavors of their authentic seafood menu.
They also feature two options of micheladas, a Mexican beer-based drink consisting of lime, spices and seasonings served in a salt-rimmed glass. The Michelada Clamato is a tomato clamato juice base and the Michelada de Chamoy has a sweet and savory flavor to it.
A cooler near the bar also features glass bottles of Coca Cola products and Fanta fruit sodas.
Ceviche Jarocho | $10.50, grande size
Aguachiles (crab claws or shrimp) | $15.50
Baked oysters | $21.50 for 1 dozen
Charolo langostinos (sautéed prawns platter) | $16.50 half order
Camarones cucaracha (spicy whole shrimp) | $14.50 starter; $19.50 meal
Robalo frito (fried whole seabass) | $19.50