The midsized sedan rumbled along a gravel road, dusting wildflowers and pitching pebbles from side to side. The hired driver negotiated the narrow lane as foothills rose into mountains. He steered his passengers to their final destination, a wildlife preserve in Michoacan, Mexico.
Lenexa restaurateur Chuck Mahowald and his traveling companions took in the tropical scenery and couldn’t wait to get out. On that day, they would see more butterflies than they could ever hope to count.
They hiked to the top of a 9,400-foot mountaintop where millions of migrating monarchs fluttered, swarmed and hovered, blanketing branches and tree trunks with their bright orange wings.
“They were everywhere,” Mahowald said. “They were landing on your arms, on your head. They were loaded on the trees. Then a couple of them would fly away. They looked like butterfly trees. The way they clouded up the sky, it was unbelievable.”
Mahowald’s tale of the trip from 15 years ago explains a colorful three-foot carving of a monarch butterfly hanging on a rafter in his eatery, just one story behind the 700 pieces of folk art and artifacts that enliven and give character to his Lenexa restaurant.
At Panzon’s, a Mexican restaurant at 87th Street and Lackman Road, ceramic suns glow from the walls, miniature frogs seem to sing and dance, and Day of the Dead figurines are painted so brightly you wonder why they refer to death. Parakeets, buckets and bottles dangle from the ceiling. Scores of animal sculptures high above diners’ heads are on shelving where colorful coyotes, pigs and chickens seem to be on parade.
Folk art is everywhere you look.
“It’s just not an average collection,” says Kansas City artist Markus Pierson, whose whimsical paintings and sculptures of coyotes are among the eclectic south-of-the border artworks on display. “Even for an artist, it’s a feast for the eyes.”
Panzon’s website declares simply, “Art. Food. Tequila.” The restaurant is known as much for its lively artworks as it is for its authentic Mexican food. Some customers say it’s like visiting an art show or museum.
On a recent Friday night, Danelle Herbert of Overland Park made a game of viewing the art with her children as she and her family stood elbow to elbow waiting for a table. Her favorite pieces are the Day of the Dead figurines lit up in glass cases. Longtime customers, the family always finds something new to see, she said.
“It’s almost like they are telling a story,” Herbert said. “It shows the culture of Mexico.”
Jan Smith of Lenexa has been coming for 15 years. She travels to Mexico annually, but gets her Mexican fix at Panzon’s between trips.
“I feel like I am in Mazatlan, Mexico,” she said. “This is how it looks in Mexico.”
Artwork, in sunset hues, is playfully arranged from ceiling to floor in the restaurant’s four dining spaces. Ceramic moons and suns, painted steer skulls, lights fashioned from tequila bottles, masks, birdhouses, oil and watercolor paintings and taxidermy frogs grab customers’ attention. The frogs especially.
“Kids, when they walk in the restaurant, you can see their faces,” said bartender Victor Terrazas. “Those frogs in front of the restaurant, they are real frogs. They think it’s really neat.”
The restaurant looks like an art show or art bazaar you might see in Mexico,
“His artwork is probably the largest (collection of) authentic art pieces in a restaurant in the Midwest,” said Panzon’s general manager John Jeffrey.
For more than two decades Mahowald has poured on folk art along with his salsa and chips. Mahowald keeps customers entertained.
“There isn’t a night that goes by that a customer wouldn’t ask, ‘Is that new? When is Chuck going to do something new?’” Jeffrey said.
Mahowald will tell you he is an unlikely restaurant owner. He has no family history in the business.
But art and antiques have always fascinated him.
He began his career refurbishing and selling antiques and decorative fixtures and fireplaces, then moved into rehabbing historic apartments and homes like the one he owns in Kansas City’s Hyde Park neighborhood. (Mahowald’s creative acumen extends beyond his restaurant. His home has been on featured on the Hyde Park homes tour twice, and his koi water garden has been featured on the Kansas City water garden tour three times.)
Back then at the end of the work day, Mahowald loved stopping at Ponak’s Mexican Kitchen on Southwest Boulevard for tacos and beer. It was the early 1980s when Ponak’s was a bar with Mexican food, Mahowald said. He became friends with the owner and suggested minor improvements in the menu and operations. His ideas led to a position as the general manager at Ponak’s.
He attended cooking school in Santa Fe, N.M., to gain expertise in Mexican cooking, learned new recipes and offered Mexican food with an authentic flair.
He gained so much weight — hitting 300 pounds — that Ponak’s staff nicknamed him Panzon, Spanish for “potbelly.”
He lost weight but kept the name: Panzon’s was born on Santa Fe Drive in Lenexa in 1990.
“I slipped into the restaurant business down at Ponak’s,” he said.
He developed new recipes and his own style of décor. He started with contemporary art such as watercolors, lithos and prints plus a few Mexican pieces.
When he moved to the current location at Lackman and 87th Street three years later, he dove into Mexican folk art.
“If I had Mexican food, it didn’t seem I should have contemporary art at a Mexican restaurant,” he said.
For the next two decades, Mahowald combined business and travel, collecting recipes, folk art, paintings and artifacts for Panzon’s. Until recent years he traveled every eight months. Mahowald spent most of his time in Mexico, but also traveled to South America and the American Southwest. Always in search of authentic Mexican cooking, he sampled regional foods from restaurants, homes, cooking schools and street vendors to get educated on mole sauces to tacos, chili rellenos to desserts and tequila and margaritas.
Wherever there was food, there was art, he discovered. He browsed flea markets, street vendors, galleries and open-air markets. When he saw art he liked, he asked around town where to find the artist, then hired local drivers throughout Mexico to take him to artists whose works he admired. Drivers sped him along narrow roads hours from the hotels and cities where he stayed to country villages and working farms.
Among them were families producing artworks alongside their livestock and crops. Each person in the family might be responsible for one part of the process. He stopped in one locale where a sign was posted announcing “Wood Carving.” There he met a son carving wood figurines among chickens pecking in his workspace while his sister painted figurines in the barn among the cows.
He met artists in cinder block homes with earthen floors and professionals with tile and upscale adobe homes.
He packed empty gym bags into his suitcase to collect all his wares. Sometimes when he returned, he wondered where he would put everything.
Mahowald has always had an eye for the unusual. He began collecting antiques and stained-glass windows as a teen and progressed from there. He sees art in ordinary objects such as the boxes holding the high-end tequila sent to the restaurant. Mahowald planned to make birdhouses of the decorative boxes but found they deteriorated in the weather. Instead, he arranged the unusual boxes in groupings above the restaurant doors.
“I just had an idea and I just did it,” Mahowald said.
To make folk art in the restaurant stand out and pop, the walls have been painted in reds, oranges, yellows, blues and lavenders, reflective of Mexico’s high-end homes and its architecture.
Each wall showcases a unique collection. One wall features ceramic moons and suns by noted Mexican artist Sergio Bustamante, Mahowald’s favorite collection.
Another highlights works by Pierson, known locally and nationally for his character coyote portraits. One of Pierson’s paintings is a 3-by-5-foot “Coyote Portrait of the Panzon,” a humorous image of Mahowald as a coyote wearing his signature khaki trousers, Rockport shoes and family ring with a cellphone in his pocket.
Mahowald is intuitive when it comes to art, Pierson said. He does not question what he sees, he said. If he likes it, that’s enough.
“The thing that makes Chuck’s collection so interesting, you just never know what you’re going to see,” Pierson said.
Mahowald trusts his judgment in a way that very few people do, Pierson said. Art is similar to any collection, like cars, he said. If you are into cars, the more rare or eccentric or obscure the car, the more interesting it is.
“Mahowald’s collection is just that,” he said. “It’s so eccentric. It’s really an unusual and interesting collection.”
Mahowald backs up his collections with knowledge of the art, just as he does with his food and drinks, Pierson said. He digs into why they make it and how they make it. He doesn’t just know Mexican food, he knows Mexican food, Pierson said.
Much of the mystique of the restaurant and its collections is how Mahowald arranges his pieces. For years, he changed out his arrangements monthly, these days, less frequently.
Pierson, who hails from a family of restaurateurs, says Mahowald’s artworks have a flow.
“People think of their eyes as something that just glides along the surface, but it doesn’t,” he said. “Your eye can actually chew. It will want to chew on something like a mouth would. You want it to flow on. That’s what he can do. Guide that eye. There’s a nice peaceful flow to that.”
Mahowald is a fixture in his restaurant like the wood-carved doors that bang open and shut from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. most days.
During the lunch and dinner hours, the soft-spoken proprietor stands posted at the oversized doors to shake hands as people enter. He embraces longtime patrons, steers customers to tables and teases the salsa-and-chips-wielding servers.
Ask him about a piece on display and be ready for a story. He told a recent visitor about the time he entered artist Sergio Bustamante’s house in Tlaquepaque, Mexico. Mahowald stepped off a narrow street into Bustamante’s studio, then ventured into a back hallway that led to his house. A glimpse of the interior took his breath away with its tile floors, glass walls, courtyard pond and live flamingos and peacocks in captivity. He did not meet Bustamante that day, but left with a memory.
“It was really fantastic,” he said. “Everything about that place was impressive.”
Linda Grimes, a server, is nervous and astonished at Mahowald’s agility on a ladder. She holds her breath when the 74-year-old restaurateur climbs the ladder to arrange groupings on ceiling-high shelves or reaches for a rafter.
“He is fearless,” Grimes said.
Mahowald’s longtime friend Bridget McKeown of Kansas City is one of Mahowald’s many traveling companions through the years. She says the dry-witted Mahowald has an eye for art and the ability to connect with people.
“He loves his customers and his customers love him like family,” McKeown said.
In 2012 the art gallery at Lenexa City Hall featured Mahowald’s Day of the Dead figurines in their monthly exhibit to coincide with Halloween. Judy Tuckness of the Lenexa Arts Council wanted to showcase the Mexican culture with Mahowald’s Day of the Dead collection.
She has watched Mahowald’s art display at Panzon’s grow through the years.
“It was an amazing exhibit,” Tuckness said.
At Panzon’s people can see that art can be interesting and entertaining, not stuffy, Tuckness said. It tells a great story of another culture, something Mahowald is comfortable doing, she said.
“It’s nice to have someone in our community that does feel that link,” Tuckness said. “The very fact that we are becoming more populated with the Hispanic culture, this gives people more of a link of it. Maybe it will build a bridge.”