La Parrilla pulls from a grab bag of Latin American cooking techniques and traditions to create a melting-pot menu.
So the KC strip is garnished with chimichurri, a parsley-olive oil sauce from Argentina. The beer-battered Baja fish tacos come with a crunchy topping of curtido, a vinegary El Salvadoran coleslaw.
The menu continues to hop and skip, from Cuban ham and cheese croquetas to Jamaican jerk chicken to ceviche a la Veracruzana — and on the side the yuca fritas, a potato-like plant, considered a staple below the equator.
But what makes the restaurant most irresistible is how it uses seasonal ingredients at an affordable price. The most expensive entrée on the menu is $13.99. And La Parrilla gets bonus points for providing loads of vegetarian options and a kid’s menu just cheesy enough (including fries topped with cheese sauce) to satisfy less adventurous eaters.
The original La Parrilla on Massachusetts Avenue in Lawrence has always attracted KU students in search of filling, global fare. But the second restaurant has popped up in a rather unlikely place: on Strang Line Road, near a multiplex cinema and surrounded by several boxy chain restaurants.
The Olathe outpost began as a Hooters, then morphed into a short-lived Mexican restaurant with the remnants of a bar that reminds me of a Club Med beach hut. For a grand opening in April, the owners put in new tile, spiffed things up with a coat of paint and added a sign.
La Parrilla is owned by Subarna Bhattachan, a native of Katmandu, Nepal, and Alejandro Lule, a native of Guanajuato, Mexico. The partners met while cooking at Teller’s and Pachamama’s in Lawrence. They opened their first La Parrilla 14 years ago, adding sister concepts Zen Zero and Genovese (also on Massachusetts Street) along the way. Most recently, at their customers’ urging, the pair decided to dip their toes into the Kansas City metro.
The restaurant was quiet on both nights that I visited. The new location is twice the size of the original. My guess is that if adventurous yet value-conscious diners give it a chance, they are likely to return.
The large menu offers more than two dozen appetizers. The Croquetas Cubanas de Papa (an order of three) is a mixture of mashed yuca and potato wrapped around Monterrey Jack cheese and bits of ham held together by breading and deliciously deep-fried. In sharp contrast to the richness of the croquetas, the Ceviche a la Veracruzana contains baby shrimp and pieces of tilapia in a fresh-squeezed lime-juice cocktail with a healthy dose of tomato, jalapeno, onion and cilantro floating in a martini glass garnished with a wedge of lemon. There is also a tostada topped with ceviche, if you prefer crunch.
I could not resist ordering the yuca frita. My husband introduced me to yuca (also called cassava) during visits to Brazil, and I have since learned that anything you can do with a potato you can do with yuca.
In all cases, the poisonous skin is removed to reveal white flesh. In this case, peeled chunks are oven-roasted, spilled on red-and-white paper to absorb excess grease and served piping hot with a chipotle-aioli. It is a satisfying and starchy nibble that pairs especially well with beer or sangria. The papas bravas are similar — potato bits with a spice coating and aioli — so don’t overdo it by ordering both.
Ultimately, the trio of empanadas filled with barbecued pork, portabello and Chilean beef edged out all the other appetizers. Flaky and piping hot, they were so delicious no one wanted to share. My only regret was I had to save the plantain chips with black bean dip for another visit. There is also spinach and artichoke queso dip and three-layer dip.
Entrees are divided between traditional items such as tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas and chimichangas. I sampled each but was most disappointed by the routine beef fajitas, which, sadly, arrived a tad tough and dry.
The standouts were the speciality dishes, including the Bistec a la Parrilla, a thinly sliced steak cooked on a flat-top grill, topped with a garnish of caramelized onions, green and red peppers and a slathering of chimichurri. The meat was flanked by two starches: a side of white rice and yuca frita with a ramekin of ketchup. Warm tortillas came wrapped in foil. It was a filling entrée, the sort of everyman’s dish that is served throughout Latin America.
Another winner was the Tilapia in Two Styles, a crisp-fried farm-raised fish with a choice of two sauces, although our server forgot to ask which one my husband wanted so he wound up with both, which for the purposes of a review is a plus. I would have had a hard time choosing between the Veracruzana sauce of onions, pepper, jalapeño, tomatoes, cilantro and cinnamon or a diabla (“she devil”) sauce, a combination of guajillo and chipotle peppers, studded with slices of green olive.
The golden-hued Costa Rican chicken tamales were beautiful to look at. I was modestly disappointed to discover the tamales were a bit dry, but not unsalvageable thanks to the deep russet of the guajillo and ancho chile sauce and a garnish of fresh pico de gallo. Spanish rice and refried beans accompanied this and most of the traditional dishes.
My biggest frustration: the service was friendly but rushed. Even after we told our server we would wait until our friends arrived to order, she pinballed back to our table at five-minute intervals.
Perhaps her eagerness to take our order was a cover for boredom, but she just didn’t take the hint: We wanted to order a cocktail. Then appetizers. Then entrees. Not everything all at once, which, it turns out, is a wise move because the tables are quite small and a fair amount of juggling is required if too many plates arrive at once.
Of course, small tables do make for an easier reach when sharing desserts. The churros and the Kahlua flan were nice, but the real winner both nights: sopapillas. Sure, what’s not to like about puffy pillows of deep-fried dough? But the versions here are more a cross between a sopapilla and baklava, with its light, flaky layers. The four triangular pastries are sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and come drizzled with cajeta (caramel sauce) and served with a side of ice cream.
Bhattachan says they use puff pastry that has been flattened with a rolling pin five or six times.
Yuca frita appetizer,
Trio of Empanadas,
Ceviche a la Veracruzana,
Tilapia in Two Styles,
Sopapillas drizzled with cajeta and served with vanilla ice cream,
What to drink
So far, it has been the summer of watered-down sangrias. Thankfully, house-made red sangria at La Parrilla is refreshing and fruity with good body. White is also available. Both are garnished with the standard apples and oranges, as well as seasonal fruits. Look for nightly drink specials.
If margaritas are more your style, the bar also makes an enticing prickly pear margarita. If you like your tequila neat, flights (three shot glasses) are available to compare styles.
The menu also lists “local partners,” including Free State Brewing (Ad Astra and Copperhead), Good Spirits Distilling Co. (Clear 10 Vodka), High Plains Distillery (Most Wanted Vodka) and Shark Attack margarita ice pops.
If you’re in the mood for something softer, try a Brazilian lemonade made with lime and Coco Lopez. I have never seen this sour yet refreshing beverage on my many travels to Brazil, but this hybrid is certainly worth trying.