Looking for a way to beat the gray days of winter but can’t afford a flight to a Mexican resort?
With seven shades of turquoise-painted chairs, light wood tabletops and woven straw basket lampshades, Cacao Restaurante might be the staycation you seek.
The decor at Cacao — pronounced Caw-COW and the word for cocoa bean — opened last March in the former Kokopelli space at 5200 W. 95th St. in Prairie Village. In its latest incarnation, the space has been lightened up, but don’t let the beachy informality fool you: The culinary mission is as earnest as the Frida Kahlo artwork on the wall.
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Think of the more adventurous parts of the Cacao menu as a vacation from what you already know. Or what you think you know.
“Mexican food is not greasy or cheesy or deep-fried. I never saw a crispy taco, deep-fried chimichanga or a sopapilla before I got to the U.S.,” Victor Esqueda said, appearing tableside after I asked a question about where the restaurant orders the flor de calabaza (zucchini blossoms that spike a sauce for enchiladas) and maracuya (a zingy passion fruit juice fashioned into a syrupy dessert sauce).
Esqueda, owner of Ixtapa in the Northland, runs the restaurant with his nephew Alfonso Esqueda, a certified public accountant who moved here from Guadalajara to keep the books. He, like his uncle, is a powerful presence pushing the less familiar items on the menu when he’s doubling as a server.
If you’re dead set on familiar street tacos, you’ll find them here (especially on the new “Hipster” portion of the menu). But I mostly ignored these options. My focus was on what Victor refers to as the “eclectic” foods of Mexico: dishes from regions as diverse as Puebla, Yucatan and Guadalajara.
At Cacao, the chile relleno is stuffed with a mixture of ground beef and dried fruits, then bound in a lattice of puff pastry rather than dipped in batter and deep-fried. The package is set atop a rich, roasted tomato and cheese sauce and garnished with sesame seeds.
Like the relleno, an enchilada gets a twist: The flor de calabaza is filled with requeson cheese and topped with a delicate sauce made from squash blossoms. The flavor reminded me of a tomatillo verde, without the zing. The dish is garnished with a scattering of microgreens, signifying both freshness and a bit of modern finesse.
Such styling extends to many of the dishes, including the sopes appetizer — a street snack made of corn masa cakes with a variety of toppings — that is presented on oblong white plates. Likewise, the marinated shrimp, mango and avocado ceviche is served inside a cylinder fashioned out of a single vertical slice of shaved cucumber.
Peruse the menu further and you might be surprised to find a pasta section with shrimp fettuccine with tequila and chipotle sauce. Or if you’re up for a detour, try the lasagna pork shank birria, a stewed dish from Jalisco typically made with goat meat or mutton but occasionally beef or chicken.
Cacao’s version features braised pork shank layered between the sweet potatoes slices. It is topped with a roasted tomato sauce with hints of cinnamon and cloves. This was definitely not my Nana’s pasta, but it was hearty and still vaguely familiar.
On the lighter side, the Pollo Miel — the most popular dish after the shrimp and jicama tacos — is a surprising combination featuring a chicken breast rolled with goat cheese and kissed with honey and a sprinkling of bee pollen. Another lighter-leaning dish is the Mahi Mahi Pibil. Pibil is an achiote paste from the Yucatan Peninsula that is typically rubbed over pork and then slow-roasted, but it works well on meaty mahi mahi.
Steak Cacao is the restaurant’s signature dish. The 8-ounce Black Angus beef tenderloin steak dusted in chili and cocoa powders is cooked to temperature and served in Cacao sauce — a blend of cocoa powder and a bit of heavy cream spiced with cinnamon, similar to a mole, but with an additional kick of habanero. The dish also includes a soup or salad of the day. This dish is not a difficult leap for most diners in Cowtown, and it is a good value at $25.
All entrees are served with a standard-issue side of vegetables that work but seem chosen more for their color to balance the plate. Indeed, the grilled red and green peppers go a long way to adding eye appeal to bean mousse and rice.
The restaurant’s servers are generally helpful, but the 5,800-square-foot space that seats 180 to 200 may be too big for the current traffic flow. The Esquedas are offering reverse happy hours from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. with a DJ and drink specials, including margaritas and infused tequilas.
“We want people to come here at night and get to know the fun drinks we have,” Alfonso says. “They can push the tables together and dance, if they want to.”
Word-of-mouth advertising on social media seems to be the way most people are coming to Cacao. Yet there have been growing pains, including a chef change. Fernanda Reyes, who trained at the Culinary Institute of Mexico, has taken over for opening chef Sonia Montero Villanueva.
On one visit before the new year, four items I ordered were unavailable, including the hot wing appetizer and churros. Instead, Alfonso suggested the Cacao Cake, a fudgy Mexican chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. It proved too dry one time but was better on a subsequent visit. The flan was topped with mezcal-marinated dried fruits, which sounded interesting, but the contrasting textures were less than optimal, and some diners at my table thought the dessert too boozy.
The coconut panacotta is not to be missed. It turns out the addictive sweet-tart maracuya sauce that tops it is not made from fresh fruit, as a more inexperienced server suggested before deferring to his boss, but from concentrate because the fruit is too perishable to import.
Regardless, my dining companions helped me lap up every last drop of the bright, sunny sauce and said they would not hesitate to make a return trip.
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor. She is also a restaurant critic and Chow Town’s blog curator. Reach her at @kcstarfood or @chowtownkc on Twitter or @chowtownkc on Instagram.
5200 W. 95th St., Prairie Village
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday, with reverse happy hour starting at 9 p.m.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday.
Entrée average: Under $20
Vegetarian options: Roasted vegetable burrito, enchiladas rojas and flor de calabaza, quinoa tacos, trio of salsas, guacamole, queso fundido, panela asada, cauliflower ceviche tostadas and creamy cauliflower soup. The latest menu has helpful symbols for spicy, vegetarian and gluten-free options.
Kids: Children’s menu for kids 10 and under includes mac and cheese, chicken or cheese quesadilla, breaded chicken strips, bean and cheese tostada or soft taco with a soft drink for $5.95.
Parking: Plenty of parking in a dedicated lot.
Handicap accessible: Yes
Reservations: Appreciated. Diners also can reserve a special room for 8 to 10 people at no charge.
Noise level: Low to medium
Food: ☆☆ 1/2 The authentic Mexican dishes are elegant on the plate yet filling. Skip the tacos, enchiladas and burritos (although there’s certainly nothing wrong with them) in favor of steak, chicken, pork or fish dishes for a gourmet staycation.
Service: ☆☆☆ Service is welcoming and professional, especially if you draw an owner as your server.
Atmosphere: ☆☆ 1/2 A fun mix of contemporary Mexican food in casual but colorful surroundings.
Enchilada flor de calabaza, $11
Chile relleno, $15
Lasagna pork shank birria, $13
Steak Cacao, $25
Coconut panacotta with maracuya (passion fruit) sauce, $7
What to drink
Margaritas, of course, most often come to mind at any Mexican restaurant, as do Micheladas (like a Bloody Mary with your choice of beer).
My Brazilian husband tried the caipirinha, and as is so often the case, we make a better one at home.
My favorite cocktail was the hybrid Mezcal Mule, a blend of smoky Xicaru Silver Mezcal with ginger beer and orange served in the requisite copper mug. Perhaps not typical, but certainly hipster.