Everyone knows Kansas City is a great town for hearty, sit-down Tex-Mex fare. But if you’re short on time or don’t feel like a heavy meal under a blanket of bubbling cheese, a lot of snack shops, drive-throughs and quick-service destinations offer up a different, and often much more authentic, taste of Mexico.Tropicana
•830 Southwest Blvd., 816-221-0192
•19321 East U.S. 40, Independence, 816-795-0099
•10928 W. 74th St., Shawnee, 913-631-4900
8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week
Sun bounces off the lime-green walls at Tropicana on Southwest Boulevard just west of Summit. Customers gossip and pore over magazines and newspapers as they dig into piles of puffy, crunchy “wagon wheel” chips and take long draws from milkshakes and smoothies.
“I want this every day,” a girl about 10 years old said, giggling, while tackling an ice cream shake so big she needed both hands.
The three branches of the Mexican snack bar cover all the between-meal bases. (A fourth location in KCK is scheduled for April.) Order a hefty torta sandwich or the thick homemade potato chips for something savory. Or choose from a wide assortment of fruit and frozen treats, including several flavors of house-made ice cream in flavors like mango, pecan and pine nut.
The freezer case also holds an assortment of house-made paletas, like a Popsicle, in flavors from fruity (strawberry, mango) to creamy (vanilla, coffee). The rice pudding paleta is almost a meal in a snack, with a terrific chew and a sprinkling of cinnamon on top.
Challenge your palate with the porcine pleasure of the chilindrina: A large crispy shell of whole wheat flour is topped with a chilled mixture of cabbage, tomatoes, sour cream or mayonnaise, a sprinkling of cheese and strips of light, chewy pickled pork skins.
The skins taste clean and refreshing, without a hint of gaminess, and the subtle chili sauce that tops it all off strikes exactly the right balance between spicy and earthy. You might easily find yourself a convert to this snack that’s familiar in Mexico, where it goes by several different names.
On the lighter side, Tropicana is also a juice bar. Try the intriguingly named “vampiro,” its crimson color coming from a combination of celery, beet, carrot and orange. Slices of melon, mango and lime poke out of tall plastic cups in Mexican fruit cocktails, where an optional sprinkle of spicy seasoning lends a salty kick.Cancun Fiesta Fresh
•4019 Pennsylvania Ave., 816-756-2120
•Also: 503 N. Seventh St., KCK, 913-621-1501Hours:
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays)
You’ll find Cancun Fiesta Fresh in a low-slung converted garage across the street from the Beaumont Club in Westport. The menu covers all the bases of the Tex-Mex repertoire: cheesy nachos, ground beef tacos, chimichangas and quesadillas.
They’re all good, solid representations — but it’s the “street tacos” that really stand out. Nestled inside warm corn tortillas, generous spoonfuls of meat wait for a squeeze from a lime wedge or a dousing in one of the house-made salsas that sit in chilled tubs next to the soda machine. The only other adornments are a sprinkle of chopped cilantro and diced white onion.
Choose from grilled chicken, excellent pork carnitas or beef prepared three familiar ways: ground, marinated asada style or chili-scented adovada.
But Cancun Fiesta Fresh also offers beef outside the usual American comfort zone. Get the four-taco Combination No. 6 ($7.50, drink included) and order two of them filled with finely textured, savory tongue (lengua) or cheek (cabeza), with its unctuous, slightly chewy pull and rich beefy flavor.
The fish tacos are stuffed with chunks of hot tilapia, coated with a barely there breading and topped with a tangle of cabbage tossed in a lightly sweet and spicy sauce.La Chihuahua
•7769 Quivira Road., Lenexa, 913-268-499510 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Snackers gather at tables in this Johnson County paleteria, which sits in a strip mall off Quivira Road. Just inside the door, a long freezer displays a selection of colorful paletas, glinting like costume jewelry baubles. Beneath another glass case at the back, tubs of hard-pack ice cream beckon.
With paletas, part of the fun is deciding which flavor to choose. Something Americanized, like the cookies and cream? Or maybe one of the more traditional choices like pecan, guava or the mild, creamy mamey, which tastes a little like a sweet potato crossed with a melon.
The menu board takes up almost one whole wall, spotlighting the wide variety with large photos that sometimes help out with the language barrier. If your appetite is too big for just a paleta, you can order a full meal, including tamales, tortas or a bowl of hot caldos beef soup — Mexican comfort food.
The elote in a cup is a velvety mixture of corn, butter, mayonnaise and lime juice, with a sprinkling of powdered chili on top. Mix it all up, or spoon your way through the different layers of tastes and textures. It’s also sometimes available on the cob, ready to eat like a big, messy, spicy lollipop.Pancho’s
•3540 Main St., 816-531-8070Open 24 hours a day
If you’re in a hurry and need a quick Mexican fix, a trip to Pancho’s drive-through lane will fill you up without emptying your wallet.
The converted Arby’s has been serving up huge burritos and a lot more since 2001. The dining room has seen happier days, but the 24-hour kitchen continues to turn out some of the best late-night munchies in midtown, especially when you want a home-grown alternative to big-chain tacos.
The chili verde burrito spills over with chunks of braised pork swimming in delicately spicy green sauce that doesn’t overwhelm the taste of the meat.
The tortas come on Mexican bread bigger than any fast-food hamburger bun, with a slight crunch on the outside and a pillowy interior. The chicken and carnitas fillings are good on their own, but both benefit from a splash of one of the house-made salsas — especially the firey, avocado-based version that’s miles away from guacamole.
From the same condiment bar as the salsas, you can help yourself to slices of fresh radish and cucumber to soothe the burn if you had an overzealous hand with the hot stuff, or you can punish your taste buds further with the spicy pickled carrots and jalapenos.
The shrimp tacos are a special treat; $3.25 gets you a fresh corn tortilla stuffed with medium-sized shrimp, shredded cabbage and a delicious tartar-like sauce with a bit of heat that plays perfectly against the sweetness of the crustaceans.Bichelmeyer Meats
•704 Cheyenne Ave., KCK, 913-342-5945Tacos on Saturdays only, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
You don’t usually think of a butcher shop for a quick lunch. But Bichelmeyer Meats, a Kansas City, Kan., institution, bucks those expectations with its Saturdays-only taco operation. Word has gotten out, and the lines can snake from the end of the meat cases to around the back wall of the store, where soda machines and a few tables give diners a place to sip and sit.
Employee Octavio Emir does most of the cooking, using the shop’s meats, of course. There are a mild chopped and steamed beef barbacoa, a chili-tinged diced beef asada, crunchy pork carnitas and soft pork pastor. The buche filling is made from pork stomach, and it’s the most flavorful of the bunch, with a variety of textures and an assertive porky backbone. With a sprinkle of onion, lime juice and a splash of either of the two salsas, a taco four-pack delivers a filling meal for $6, and you can add extras for $1.75 each.
The shop also sells house-made tamales, $6 for six or $10 a dozen.
“We start up at 8:30 or 9 in the morning on Saturdays and go on through till 5 in the afternoon,” said Matt Bichelmeyer, nephew of owner Jim Bichelmeyer and the mastermind behind the tacos. “We take pride in the quality of the meat, and our customers love it.”Tienda Casa Paloma
•8220 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park, 913-385-904411 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday-Sunday
Casa Paloma’s collection of diner banquettes, Formica-topped kitchen tables and big wooden dining room sets is a lot like its menu of home-style Mexican specialties. The sheer number of choices is an invitation to hem and haw, and everything has a decidedly homemade spin.
Braised and grilled meats appear in many dishes, tucked inside soft-shell tacos and tortas or served on plates with rice, unadorned black beans and little foil rolls of steaming-hot corn tortillas.
The Juan’s Favorite combo samples three of the best: tender pork in tangy salsa verde, chicken adobo in a mild red broth and the rich, nutty pollo in pipian, blanketed with a sauce of ground pumpkin seeds and chilies.
In addition to the quesadillas, salads and burritos, Casa Paloma offers American and Mexican breakfast staples all day, including a fine rendition of huevos rancheros.
Some of the biggest stars are the rotating daily specials. The New Mexico-style green chili on Tuesdays and Wednesdays is worth a trip, as are Friday’s fish tacos. On Saturdays, chicken mole and rich pozole soup are featured, but the real find is the humble picada. It’s a thick, tortilla-like corn cake base, brushed with red sauce and topped with whole black beans and a crumble of white cheese. The shell has the crumb of first-rate tamales, and the simple toppings provide a perfect balance.
House-made salsas include a deeply smoky mild red, a creamy medium green that has great flavor without too much kick, and a spicy “extra hot” green that sneaks in a little acid pucker with the heat.
Around the restaurant you’ll find a selection of Mexican grocery items and packaged snack foods. If you feel like dessert but your stomach is crying uncle, grab a de la Rosa Peanuts Confection at the register (three for $1). It’s a stubby disc, like a half-inch-thick silver dollar. Its crumbly texture and powerful punch of sweetness are a bite or two of pure peanut pleasure and hit the right note after a big meal.