I love authentic Mexican cuisine.
I’ve filmed many episodes of my television show, “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” on location in Mexico — episodes that homed in on a wide variety of Mexican dishes. I was an early fan and acquaintance of superchef Rick Bayless, who blazed a path for real Mexican food at his Chicago restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.
And I’ve really enjoyed the traditional Mexican offerings at Ixtapa restaurant near Zona Rosa in the Northland. I was thrilled to learn that Ixtapa’s owner, Victor Esqueda, was a partner in a new Mexican restaurant at 5200 W. 95th St., near Nall Avenue, in Prairie Village: Cacao.
I’ve dined at Cacao three times now. I’ve met the chef, the charming Sonia Montero Villanueva, who has run restaurants in Guadalajara and spent time in New York City as a culinary instructor. I chatted with Esqueda, who shared his vision and passion for the true cuisine of Mexico, among the most complex and diverse in the world.
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But perhaps most exciting for me as a long-time wine-lover was meeting Cacoa’s sommelier, Rose Hance. Like me, she believes that wine-lovers shouldn’t have to settle for a beer or a margarita (not that there’s anything wrong with that) while eating traditional Mexican cuisine, even dishes with spicy, intricate flavors.
“There are quite a few challenges in matching wine with the food here. Our flavors are so unique that the basic wine pairing rules, like Sauvignon Blanc with goat cheese and others, don’t really apply.
“Still, our flavors are pure, so it gives us the opportunity to see what wines actually match with our food. It’s wonderful to serve a Tempranillo with the pork marinated in the achiote or to see how well various white wines go with our poblano soups. So it’s been challenging, but it’s also been really exciting,” Hance said.
Hance has been in the restaurant business for 20 years, but it has been only in the last five, while working for PB&J Restaurants, that she was bitten by the wine bug. She passed her Level 1 Sommelier exam and started down the path that all true wine-lovers know — the one where the more you taste, the more you want to taste, and the more wine knowledge you acquire, the more you realize you don’t know.
“I love wine. There’s so much to know about it. It’s never-ending. I wish I could take my Level 1 Somm class now because I know so much more than I did before,” Hance told me recently.
I agree with Hance’s philosophy on matching Villanueva’s dishes with wine. It’s really about balancing the wine and the food.
I brought two French rosés to a luncheon Cacao hosted for a wine group I belong to. The bright fruit of the wines and their refreshing acidity made them good matches for the cuisine, which ran from acidic, to creamy, to spicy.
Recently, for dinner I brought a 10-year-old Spanish wine, a Bierzo, which is composed of the ancient mencia grape. The wine’s age and the fact that mencia produces a softer, less tannic wine again made it a great match with the wide variety of dishes we ordered. I’m not bragging about my skills of pairing wine and food, just sharing my belief that there are a range of wines for every type of cuisine in the world.
“For any food and wine pairing, it’s really about weight and balance and the way the wine feels in your mouth,” Hance said. “And what’s really neat here is that normally I’d be dealing with a lot of Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and Cabernet Sauvignons, but I don’t really have those here. I’m matching wonderful Portuguese Vinho Verdes, Albarinos and Crianza Riojas from Spain, and other great wines that are perfect fits for our food.”
Speaking of the cuisine, Villanueva’s dishes range from the elegant, such as glazed salmon with tequila and agave honey served with rice and grilled vegetables, to authentic street food like assorted sopes: potatoes, brown beans, pork chile verde sauce, requeson cheese or chorizo.
I’d recommend starting with the trio of salsas and/or the habanero-lime chicken wings. The wings are served whole, a la Hooters, so they are not the easiest to eat, but man, the flavors are amazing! The pork cochinita pibil, marinated, super-tender pork with a slight spiciness, served with tortillas, rice and beans, was my recent lunch choice, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the day.
Cacao’s wine list is compact, but it offers a nice selection at extremely fair prices. We bought a bottle of Tempranillo for less than $30 after the Bierzo was gone, and it was delicious. The fact that the restaurant charges only a $10 corkage for you to bring in your own bottle is even more enticing.
Hance also told me Cacao is launching special half-price wine nights on Sundays and Mondays, and the Marques de Casa Concha Reserva Carmenere from Chile will be on it. Count me in. I’ve got a whole lot more dishes to try and more wine and food matches to explore.
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.