Northeast Joco

Cacao in Prairie Village explores the flavors of Mexico

Cacao’s version of the chile relleno wraps a chicken breast stuffed with pork, ground beef and dried nuts in puff pastry and is served with roasted tomato and cheese sauce.
Cacao’s version of the chile relleno wraps a chicken breast stuffed with pork, ground beef and dried nuts in puff pastry and is served with roasted tomato and cheese sauce. Special to The Star

If it’s an amuse bouche of tortilla chips, salsa and cheese dip you’re craving, Cacao Restaurante in Prairie Village probably isn’t your flavor of Mexican restaurant.

To be fair, Cacao does serve its interpretation of traditional Mexican cheese dip—queso fundido (at $9) that blends tangy melted Oaxaca cheese with mushrooms and garlic sauce or chorizo and a salsa trio ($5).

But the similarities stop there.

If you’ve indulged in authentic regional Mexican cuisine — perhaps during a trip south of the border or at one of Cacao owners’ other successful Kansas City concepts — you’ll settle in just fine without Tex-Mex’s familiar dining precursor. A sharp departure from cheese-drenched and deep-fried entrees labeled as Mexican that many palates are addicted to, Cacao instead wanders to Mexico’s roots for an approach that incorporates distinctive, fresh flavors.

Seasoned restaurateurs Ivan Marquez, the former owner of Frida’s in Overland Park; Victor Esqueda, the founder of the former Guadalajara’s at 103rd and State Line and owner of the Northland’s Ixtapa; and Alfonso Esqueda, Victor’s nephew who helped open Guadalajara in 1996, own Cacao. Marquez was born in Mexico City and later moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, where he met the Esquedas.

The trio is known for its passion to ensure customers receive a full-circle taste of their home country beyond chef Fernanda Reyes’s well-executed dishes.

At Cacao, colorful woven baskets of varying sizes custom-made by Indians in the state of Mexico are artfully arranged on a long wall. The open, airy dining room is punctuated by a soothing turquoise color scheme. And diners receive an impromptu history lesson from Marquez and staff while studying the menu, which includes soups, salads, tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tortas (sandwiches), fish, chicken, beef and pork entrees and desserts.

My friend, chef Jasper Mirabile Jr., and his wife, Lisa, joined me for dinner one Tuesday — his day off and a time when he explores Kansas City’s ever-evolving food landscape. We both followed Marquez and Esqueda in their different successful culinary adventures and were eager to try Cacao, which opened in the spring.

As we studied the menu, Marquez tutored us on Mexico cuisine’s impressive depth.

“Mexico has 31 states,” Marquez said, “each known for a different method of cooking. Cacao’s flavors are found in the states of Oaxaco and Yucatan; Guadalajara, the capital and largest city of the state of Jalisco; and the country’s southern, Gulf and Pacific areas.”

For starters, chef Reyes delivered Cacao’s shrimp ceviche, marinated shrimp with mango, avocado, olive oil and lime wrapped in thinly sliced cucumber with a touch of habañero sauce, served with tostadas ($11), representing southern Mexico.

Next up was a quartet of miniature sopes ($11), a dish that originated in central and south Mexico’s, followed with entrees of honey-glazed salmon ($15) and shrimp jicama tacos ($10).

The lasagna pork shank birria captivated all of us, though — intriguing layers of sweet potatoes and fork-tender pork shank, topped with cheese and served with bean mousse ($13). Hailing from the state of Jalisco, this dish is usually served as a stew, but Marquez and Hance have chosen a composed presentation.

Mole sauce, which has become the culinary symbol of Mexican’s mixed indigenous and European heritage, is featured nicely on Cacao’s menu, enrobing a plump chicken breast topped with red onions and served with rice and roasted vegetables ($13). The pasilla (chile) relleno showcases Cacao’s innovative cooking. The pepper arrives covered in a golden puff pastry, stuffed with ground pork and beef and dried fruits and in a pool of roasted tomato and cheese sauce ($13).

“At Cacao, we teach the tastes of genuine Mexican food,” Marquez explains between courses. “Victor, Alfonso and I grew up eating food that has history more than 400 years in the making. For instance, nuns created mole in the 16th century.”

Wrapping up his chef’s day off, Mirabile ordered Cacao’s signature brownie ($7) served with café de olla and vanilla ice cream, and I opted for the velvety-smooth panna cotta ($7). Both desserts were satisfying and, as we finished last bites, Marquez reminded us that we’ve just scratched the surface of what Cacao offers — a cause for celebration, indeed.

Cacao Restaurante

Location: 5200 W. 95th St., Prairie Village

Phone: 913-296-7485

Hours: Sunday - Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Daily happy hour (bar area only) 5 to 8 p.m.

Don’t Miss: Mixologist Rose Hance’s margaritas and cocktails made with fresh juices (starting at $5)

Vegetarian: Burritos with roasted veggies and cheese, served with brown beans and rice ($10); also, 96 percent of the menu is gluten free.

At the bar: Fresh juices, including carrot, orange and ginger, apple, strawberry and mint, and a daily juice special ($5)

Coming soon: This fall Cacao will serve traditional Mexican hot chocolate

More info: For private events and catering, visit cacaokc.com or Facebook

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