Chef Carlos Falcon of Jarocho Pescados y Mariscos impatiently waits for an insulated container with geoduck to arrive from Japan.
Pronounced “gooey-duck,” the giant saltwater clam resembles a sci-fi creature from the deep. Geoduck is farm-raised in California, the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia for the Japanese market. But Falcon has developed contacts with fishermen who have agreed to send a “miniscule” amount back to his Kansas City, Kan., restaurant via Martinez Produce and Seafood, a Chicago distributor specializing in sushi-grade fish.
The carbon footprint may not be optimal, but the circuitous route the sustainable mollusk travels to Kansas City is worth it to Falcon, who pushes the palates of adventurous diners with his multi-course omikase “chef’s choice” menus.
“To me, it encapsulates every single flavor you are supposed to get in the ocean,” he says of geoduck.
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In 2015, Falcon opened Jarocho at 719 Kansas Ave. in a modest cinderblock building painted sea blue. The interior, decorated with starfish, shells and anchor motifs, offers a bit of seaside kitsch, while the well-worn booth seats offer a view of a used car dealership and a grain silo.
The casual, taqueria-style atmosphere and a “high-low” approach to the menu design has put Falcon at the creative epicenter of Kansas City’s seafood and fish scene.
By day, the menu offers recognizable species with a rustic Mexican flair: oysters on the half shell, ceviche, whole fried fish, octopus tacos and aguachiles. But by night, the specials and omakase options introduce Midwestern diners to the depths of the sea: abalone, eel, sea urchin, blood clams, live scallops and monk fish liver.
Sous chef Travis Meeks kept count of his virgin encounters throughout the first four months at Jarocho. After ticking off 100 never-seen-before items — including stingray — Meeks simply lost count.
“The seafood quality we get here is so great, and what he does to not muddle it is amazing,” Meeks says as he tastes one of Falcon’s omakase courses — a salmon laab, inspired by a traditional minced ground beef dish from Laos. Only Falcon’s is made with buttery Ora King salmon, topped with a dab of Osetra caviar and accompanied by mini corn tostadas.
“Jarocho” is a term for a person from Veracruz, a state in Mexico, and Falcon’s less-is-more attitude is drawn from his childhood. He grew up in poverty in the seaside city of Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz. As the youngest of seven children, he was always helping his mother with the shopping and cooking, or selling tacos on the street.
Falcon came to Kansas City to visit a brother and recalls he was immediately struck by the friendliness of the people he met on the street. Falcon eventually put down roots, taking a job as a dishwasher at Red Lobster and a cook at the former Stonehill Inn in Lenexa, now Grinders @ Stonewall.
Falcon got his formal training at Johnson County Community College and then the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, N.Y. After getting more experience in New York City restaurants, he returned to Kansas City, where he began running nightclubs, including creating the menu for Milieu, a short-lived French bistro in Overland Park.
When Falcon opened Jarocho, his Japanese-born wife, Sayaka Gushi Falcon, was pregnant with their son, Issey, and worked in the kitchen as a sous chef because the couple couldn’t afford to pay anyone. But word-of-mouth and social media buzz soon brought a tide of government officials, CEOs and fellow chefs to the table. Next up, Jarocho South at 13145 State Line Road, opening in March.
When the geoduck finally arrives, Falcon returns to the kitchen. He dunks the clam into a pot of boiling water and counts to five before removing it with a pair of tongs. He places the gangly meat on a cutting board and, with his fingers, removes the casing, stripping off what looks like a pair of tan pantyhose.
Falcon removes a shell the size of an iPad. “The belly is where all the big flavors are concentrated,” he says, setting aside the fleshy belly to make a soup that will be similar to clam chowder.
Using a personally engraved Japanese knife, he slices the meat vertically into two long strips and inspects for any sand or grit, then starts to make shorter horizontal slices. At one point he briefly pauses the action to hand a piece to one of his cooks who has never tasted the clam, who responds: “That’s good … tastes like water. It’s really fresh.”
In a stainless-steel bowl, Falcon mixes a guajillo pepper-infused oil — the dried pepper is a favorite ingredient from his childhood — and allows the geoduck to swim in the emulsion poured into the well of a wavy, pearlescent dish.
“Here, we’re not going all fancy,” he says. “It’s just about the flavor of the geoduck.”
Fresh. Briny. A little crunchy. Spiked with earthiness of the guajillo and punctuated by the slight ping of micro mustard greens.
“Carlos is a game-changer,” says chef Calvin Davis, who first worked with Falcon at Milieu and Jarocho before getting ready to open his own place, Freshwater, in midtown in March. “I don’t know anybody in the country that is doing anything like he is.”