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Central Standard

Food Critics: The Best Latin American Dishes In Kansas City

Arnold Gatilao/Flickr -- CC

Arepas, pupusas, pão de queijo … there’s more to Latin American food than massive burritos and hard-shell tacos.

On KCUR’s Central Standard, chef Joel Palacios from Real Jalisco visited the studio to show us how to prepare raw cactus (hint: watch out for the spiny parts) and how to make his specialty dish, Pollo Miraplanes (chicken with cactus). Then KCUR’s Food Critics searched out the best Latin American dishes — from Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean — in and around Kansas City.

Carmen Gramajo, Comida KC:

  • For Guatemalan food, La Plaza Market and Restaurant: It’s a little market in Independence. They have the best Guatemalan and Central American tamales for Christmas. They also serve chuchitos, which is our version of Mexican tamales. They’re small, wrapped in corn husks and filled with red sauce, chicken or beef, and they’re usually topped off with crema (which is like sour cream, but more runny and tangy) and queso fresco.
  • El Tenedor: Chef Carmen Cabia Garcia brings Spanish food to another level! When you think about Latin American food, you don’t think Spanish food — but that’s our roots, our spices; our cuisine comes from Spain. Her paella is flavorful and as authentic as I’ve tried. I also like the papas bravas — potatoes, spicy and earthy, with a sweet Spanish paprika. For Comida, she made paella rice balls infused with lobster cream.
  • El Salvadoreño has some great pupusas. Pupusas are originally from El Salvador, but we are such small countries that it’s really a Central American dish now. It’s a homemade tortilla that’s filled with different things. The topping makes it what it is — you top it with el curtido, a slaw that’s made with carrot, cabbage, vinegar, spices and a bay leaf. You’ll find jars of it on the table. They’ll bring you the hot pupusa; put slaw on top and a little tomato red sauce, and it’s delicious.
  • The chicharrón pupusas at El Salvadoreño are delicious. Top it with the slaw, which combines very nicely with the hot melted cheese. The thick masa will absorb the liquid from the cabbage.
  • Bean and cheese pupusas at El Pulgarcito! It’s a little Salvadorean restaurant that also embraces Central American flavor.
  • El Porton Café has some great Puerto Rican dishes and really good plantain chips. There’s a Caribbean influence there.
  • Panaderia de Las Americanas is little bakery on Southwest Boulevard. It’s a Central American bakery, specifically, and they make outstanding sweets — from sweet bread for your morning coffee to tres leches cake, which is to die for. They’re regional as well; you will find Mexican bread, Guatemalan bread, Salvadorean bread — so they do cater a lot to the Central American community
  • Paleteria Tropicana is next door to Panaderia de Las Americas. It’s another place for ice cream and sweets, but it has so much more than just popsicles (like savory dishes). The fresas con crema — cut-up strawberries with sour cream and sugar — is a family favorite.
  • I love Teocali. Owner Enrique Gutierrez's mom, who does the cooking, does a great job. It’s just a great representation of good flavors. You might be getting a burrito, but it has that flavor from traditional spices. It’s not a burrito that has a bunch of cheese on top to cover everything else.
  • At Extra Virgin, Michael Smith doesn't just serve traditional Spanish tapas; he brings Latin American flavor to tapas.

Jenny Vergara, Feast Magazine:

  • The Cuban sandwich from the Plantain District food truck is made with authentic Cuban bread, ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard and pickles, griddled on a flat top or sandwich press with butter until the bread is crunchy and toasty and the insides are warm and gooey. It’s served with crispy seasoned plantain chips. It’s a wonderful version of ham and cheese, if you will. I think they do a really good job with their Cubans.
  • Taste of Brazil Market. I love these guys. Taste of Brazil is more of a casual snack stand. I like the mortadella sandwich on soft white bread with or without provolone cheese. I also like the pão de queijo cheese rolls, coxinha with potato dough filled with chicken and cream cheese and a Guarana soda to drink.
  • Empanada Madness: The empanadas are delicious and crispy. They’re made with cornmeal dough and filled with your choice of potato, queso fresco and eggs, shredded beef, shredded chicken or ground beef. The flour dough version of this is called a pastelito. They do a nice job with arepas as well.
  • El Porton Café serves arepas, a Venezuelan fried cornmeal patty that’s opened up to make a pocket and stuffed with a variety of delicious fillings (like shredded beef and black beans, vegetables and cheese, chicken, etc.). They are excellent here.
  • El Pulgarcito: Love their papusas — another cornmeal cake that’s filled with beans and cheese and topped with curtido, a traditional fermented slaw made with cabbage, onions, carrots and lime juice.
  • Jarocho Pescados y Mariscos is basically a seafood restaurant. Chef Carlos Falcon is from Veracruz, Mexico. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he sells oysters like nobody’s business. But if you catch him on a slow night, like Wednesdays, put yourself in his hands and he’ll bring out the most amazing fresh seafood dishes I’ve had, like grilled baby octopus, whole red snapper grilled and stuffed with fresh herbs, oysters on the half shell, langoustines and more.

Charles Ferruzza, The Pitch:

  • El Porton Café. Chef Jose Garcia used to own a Venezuelan restaurant in Kansas City, Kansas. He has dishes from Guatemala, Venezuela and Puerto Rico at El Porton.
  • Piropos for Argentinian cuisine.
  • Empanada Madness
  • Em Chamas, a locally owned Brazilian steakhouse.
  • Taste of Brazilhas the best brigadero I’ve ever tasted. It’s the perfect candy for me because you have one and you don’t eat candy again for the next 15 years — they’re so rich.
  • El Patrón is very good. It can get very, very crowded very, very fast. It’s a bit Tex-Mexy, but everything is done with high quality and it’s a fun place to go to.

Listener Recommendations:

  • The Pupuseria Lupita food truck is incredible. It’s usually at the corner of Independence Avenue and Hardesty.
  • Empanadas fromEl Tenedorare the best.
  • Tacos El Güero just sells street tacos, but it's an amazing experience. There are a few bar stools where you can watch the cook make your tacos through a window.
  • Café Brazil and Taste of Brazil are both authentic.
  • Old Mexico Restaurant in Independence. Its owners are from Bolivia. Even though the restaurant serves Mexican food, it has some Bolivian dishes that are very good. Pique a la Macho is served in Bolivia after you’ve been drinking; it has jalapenos, sausage, fried potatoes and beef, and it’s topped with onion and tomatoes. Silpancho is a dish with a thin, fried meat patty, eggs, rice, potatoes and pico de gallo.

Central Standard Food & DrinkBest Food KC