Every palate needs a little shake-up on occasion. Have a craving for a little tongue, exotic peppers, corn fungus or a few plantain chips? Until recently, south Overland Park wasn’t necessarily a dining destination for adventurous eaters. Cocobolos by Michael Smith, the new Latin American restaurant in the Prairiefire development, may offer just the little ruckus your jaded taste buds require.
For those unfamiliar with the 58-acre neighborhood in the southwest quadrant of the intersection at 135th Street between Nall and Lamar, Prairiefire has an almost otherworldly quality. The comfortable locale is filled with stylish bistros, bars and entertainment venues, not to mention a great natural-history museum. And during beautiful weather the locals come out in droves to take advantage of the many patios and outdoor seating areas. If the name Cocobolos seems a little familiar, it’s because there is a slight association with Coco Bolos New Mexican Wood-Fired Grill and Cantina, a concept developed over 13 years ago in Manhattan, Kansas and brought to Prairiefire by the developer Merrill Companies. It even had a 15-minute incarnation in Leawood, but Smith has completely overhauled the concept and the food, creating a refreshing and contemporary take on Latin cuisine.
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Like many of the restaurants in Prairiefire, the colorful Cocobolos is generously scaled, modern and pristine. Warm colors, modern surfaces and “graffiti” by Kansas City artist D. Ross Scribe give the space a comfortable Latin/urban feel. In appropriate weather, garage doors on two walls open to allow gentle Midwestern breezes to caress patrons. As for the food, the menu is all Smith, and although there are a few dishes from the original Coco Bolos concept (like the Tijuana Trainwreck and Cocobolos Skillet Nachos), even those have been renovated.
Though I opened by referring to adventurous dining, I want to start with … nachos. Before a little Wikipedia research, I assumed that nachos were a Tex-Mex invention. Actually, they are an early 1940s Mex-Tex invention (that is originating in Mexico), credited to Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, in Piedras Negras, Mexico, across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. Nacho’s sense of hospitality and creativity in a time of distress resulted in tortillas cut into triangles, topped with shredded cheddar cheese and pickled jalapeno peppers, warmed under a broiler. His humble dish has evolved into a culinary icon. And if a James Beard award-winning chef can’t make a respectable plate of nachos, woe be unto us all. Fortunately, there is nothing to worry about in Smith’s Cocobolos Skillet Nachos, a sizzling mountain of crispy house-fried chips, savory and spicy bits of chorizo, generous drizzles of crema (Mexican sour cream), pickled and piquant jalapenos, black beans and a refreshing handful of scallions, tomato and cilantro. This dish screams to be shared with friends, some tasty Cocobolos cocktails and a sporting event on the big screen above the bar.
If you are looking for something to refresh your culinary outlook, order the mushroom and huitlacoche tostadas. Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on ears of corn, AKAcorn smut. Although I’ve now eaten huitlacoche on three separate occasions, I’m still not sure what it tastes like. Blame it on the distracting savory mushrooms, crisp tortilla, the tang of the queso fresco, or the earthy sweetness of … mole? Maybe that was the huitlacoche. My lack of discernment might have something to do with the tasty El Jimador Silver tequila margaritas, but who’s to judge.
One of the more visually striking dishes we sampled was the Peruvian white bass ceviche. A mound of freshly shredded cabbage, shaved red onion, generous chunky flakes of citrus-marinated bass and fried corn kernels. (Although the concept of “corn nuts” is actually Peruvian, they get credit for authenticity, but I’m still not a fan of them.) With its garnish of crisp and delicate plantain chips fanning out of the dish like fingers, the dish is perfect for the diet conscious, but it tasted a little diet conscious as well. During this visit, the ceviche and a few of the cold dishes seemed a little light on the seasonings, like the cubist cucumber, jicama, and peanut salad with cumin-lime dressing.
I loved the delicious and surprising chicken and cheese tamale with both green and red moles (the Mexican sauce, not the garden varmint). Accustomed to the tamale we most often see in our area, the small ones wrapped in corn husks, my curiosity piqued as the plate arrived with what appeared to be a few slices of whole wheat baguette, topped with shreds of cabbage, radish, and crumbly queso fresco. But one warm bite into the “baguette” assured me that this was actually a flavorful corn masa cooked in a larger husk. (Tamales are steamed in any number or size of wrappings like plantain leaves or even Swiss chard.) The combination of the smoky sweetness of the red mole, the bright flavors of the green and the crunch of the raw vegetables expanded my tamale awareness.
There are a few variations on the lunch menu, and if I were hungry and in a hurry, I would go straight to the Bolo Cubana sandwich for a good, solid lunch experience. Served warm between slices of soft bread with a nicely caramelized and crunchy exterior, this is a classic Cuban sandwich filled with pork, ham and cheese, accompanied by housemade fries with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and salty cheese crumbles. I would have ordered the hangar steak, but knowing that Smith’s hangar steak at Extra Virgin (his hip and tasty Crossroads outpost) is such a home run and my favorite hangar in K.C., I decided to continue on into uncharted territory, just for the sake of research.
If stranded on a desert island,* and I could only have one dish from the menu, it would be a toss-up** between the Peruvian crab salad with avocado and the Bolos tacos. Both dishes have so many things going for them. The presentation of the crab salad is quite striking, a stubby vertical cylinder of golden potato salad fading into chartreuse-y shades then to the greens of avocado, topped with crab, crisp fried onion and crunchy quinoa. The infusion of aji amarillo (a deep golden Peruvian chile, hot but sweet) provides a nice piquancy, and the accompanying fresh greens and fried tortilla make this a light but definitely complete meal. The harmony of flavors is remarkable. Equally beautiful, in the way of simple but great street food, was the selection of Bolos tacos. Diners pick three of the five choices. My favorite was the moist savory beef tongue taco with smoky roasted jalapenos and refreshing cabbage slaw. The pulled crispy pork taco topped with crunchy pork skins, pineapple and queso fresco featured new textures and flavors with every bite. Always a sucker for a fish taco, I had to order the pleasantly spicy battered tilapia with cabbage, cilantro and chipotle mayo and enjoyed every rich and juicy bite. We fact-checked the same three choices on another visit and loved them just as much the second time.
The beverage list at Cocobolos features an extensive selection of mezcals and tequilas, younger versions intended for shooting, and more refined versions intended for sipping. Their Latin-inspired cocktail list has something that is sure to please every palate.
Cocobolos makes a thirst-quenching Mexican Mule (their version of the Moscow Mule-vodka, ginger beer, lime, mint) served in the traditional copper cup. The traditional copper cup requires the surrender of an ID, but I know from experience that even in some of the swankiest restaurants with some of the swankiest patrons in town, that these things tend to disappear, like artwork in the restrooms and unusual little serving dishes. In addition Smith has borrowed his extended happy hour concept from Extra Virgin. Beginning at 11:30 a.m. and continuing until 6 p.m., Cocobolos features $5 margaritas ($15 pitchers), $5 sangrias ($15 pitchers), and $5 wines and discounted beers. Any day now a selection of happy-hour eats will be added to the program. Monday features half-price wines in case you’re really thirsty.
Although some like to drink their dessert, I highly suggest ordering the Bolo banana split, even if you don’t think you have room. The kid in all of us needs a banana split on occasion, and this one has a few sophisticated little twists that will please even a jaded adult. The bananas have a delicate and crispy bruléed sugar veneer. The deeply flavored vanilla and chocolate ice creams are by Glacé (of Christopher Elbow chocolate fame), and there is a zucchini cake atop the bananas (Mom always said eat your vegetables). Drizzles of dark chocolate and strawberry, a sprinkling of crunchy almonds, and a dollop of whipped cream finish the dish. I suggest sharing.
A change of scenery, fresh new flavors, and delicious cocktails? Those out south craving a culinary adventure no longer have to travel north, but northerners wanting a new Latin American dining experience by chef Michael Smith do have to travel south.
For more information or reservations, call 913-766-5000 or visit cocoboloskc.com
- This is a judgment-based format that I apply to countless situations on a daily basis.
- I’ve never resolved the issue of “toss-ups” in the desert island decision. I assume that the situation would devolve into some Lord of the Flies scenario resulting in aSophie’s Choice ending.