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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

A Once-Thriving Mexican Restaurant In Kansas City's Northland Is In Peril Because of COVID-19

Ixtapa_Victor Esqueda.jpg
Victor Esqueda poses with regulars at Ixtapa, his restaurant off Barry Road in the Northland, in happier times.

Ixtapa had plans to expand to a second location this month. Now, the Northland restaurant just hopes to survive the coronavirus shutdown.

For Ixtapa, an unassuming restaurant on NW Barry Road known for fresh ingredients and traditional Mexican flavors, April was supposed to mark a major milestone. Owners Victor Esqueda and Alejandro Hernandez had planned to open a second location in Overland Park, at 95th and Metcalf. Opening day was set for April 1. They'd hired and trained nearly a dozen cooks, bartenders, and servers. But right as go-time arrived, coronavirus hit Kansas City.

Now, the new location sits empty.

Because there's no previous payroll to show and no record of profits to demonstrate, the cost of renting commercial space and paying employees can't be offset by stimulus funds.

"We are trapped," says Esqueda. "We can't apply for government help because it's brand new. We need to support our workers, it's difficult for them ... so now we support them one way or another until we open the restaurant."

Esqueda says his staff is irreplaceable. "We are not the typical Mexican restaurant," he says. "All our kitchen staff is very specialized."

The food at Ixtapa is light and flavorful in the Oaxacan style, says owner Victor Esqueda.

Many of the workers come from Oaxaca, a region of Mexico known for light, flavorful cuisine with an emphasis on fresh fish and vegetables. Chefs worldwide travel to Oaxaca to experience the food.

"It's like the Mecca of Mexican food," says Esqueda. He says if he were to lay off his workers, that would make reopening impossible.

Ixtapa opened in 2005, and according to Esqeda, the point of the restaurant is to teach people that "what they think about Mexican food is a lie."

When he first came to the United States, Esqueda lived in Lincoln, Nebraska. He saw a sign advertising a Mexican restaurant and got really excited. Then he went inside and saw the food. Crispy taco shells. Greasy lumps of cheese.

"I remember thinking, 'What the hell is that?' Some guy, very upset, tells me it's Mexican food. Oh really? Is there another Mexico in the world? Because I've never seen nothing like that in my life."

Esqueda delights in sharing the Mexican food of his childhood while reserving the right to experiment. One of the signature dishes at Ixtapa is Pork Oaxaca.

"We open the pork loin in a butterfly style," Esqueda explains. "We marinate it with the fresh lime juice and delicate herbs. We put it on the grill with mesquite flavor, stuff it with a little Oaxaca cheese," he says, describing this cheese as a mix between Gouda and mozzarella. "We melt it with the mocajete sauce," he continues, "roasted tomato, roasted jalapeno, roasted poblano. It's out of this world."

Esqueda also loves to make things special for his customers.

"We are the menu," he says, explaining that when customers arrive, they can expect to be interviewed. "When you come in, we say, 'What is your mood today? Chicken, steak, pork, shrimp, fish?' We're going to ask, 'You like a little spicy or mild?' We try to make the specific food for you."

Ixtapa_Alejandro Hernandez.jpg
Ixtapa co-owner, Alejandro Hernandez, moved to Kansas City from Lincoln, Nebraska, to open the Northland restaurant in 2005. It's been a culinary destination for fifteen years.

Many of Ixtapa's regulars drive long distances for the food, which makes curbside carryout a challenge. Not all of the restaurant's dishes travel well, so Esqueda has had to adapt them. The restaurant's tacos, for example, are meant to be eaten right away. The delicate tortillas from scratch would get soggy sitting under toppings too long. Hot meats and sauces would get cold, but avocado, lime and fresh herbs would interfere with re-heating. So Ixtapa's tacos are served differently now. Every ingredient is packaged separately, for customers to assemble later, at home.

Esqueda says customers are supporting Ixtapa, and weekday business is steady. But there's no making up for the big crowds they used to get on weekends. Esqueda estimates they're losing 80% of their sales per week, only now with two locations to support.

Ixtapa's landlords have been patient, he says. But no one knows what to do in a situation like this, because it's not just him. It's everyone.

"It's me, it's my neighbor, it's the guy in front of me, the other restaurant," he says.

But the thought of having to close Ixtapa is almost unbearable.

"It's more than a job," Esqueda says. "If I lost it, it's like I lost my hand or leg."

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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