Do Re Mi Cocina

 

Could a beautiful woman such as, say, Penelope Cruz be any less attractive wearing a Kmart double-knit polyester pantsuit than she is wearing Christian Lacroix? My young friend Jennifer, who works in the fashion trade, would say absolutely. She’s a trend-conscious twentysomething, and looks are everything. That’s why Jennifer would rather cool her perfectly white teeth on a $7.50 icy margarita at the Plaza’s Mi Cocina — the most stylish Tex-Mex restaurant in Kansas City — than be seen at one of the more plebian Mexican restaurants over on Southwest Boulevard. She’s a snob, damn it, and not ashamed of it.

“If I’m wearing expensive shoes and expensive clothes,” she said, lighting a cigarette at the sleek granite bar at the back of the four-year-old restaurant, “I prefer to be in a setting that looks as good as I do.”

After a lull in popularity after its 1998 opening, Mi Cocina has suddenly become the very hip gathering place for the young, the well-dressed and the well-exercised. It had been a couple of years since I had dined at the restaurant, so I was speechless at the changes I saw upon my return. Not only have the restaurant’s patrons evolved to life forms higher than the frumpy tourists who flocked to its tables in the early days, but the dining room doesn’t even look familiar. It was like running into an old school friend who had lost weight, changed her hairstyle and fashion sensibilities and gone from being class wallflower to Miss Popularity.

It took me nearly thirty minutes and a plate of stir-fry quesadillas to get my bearings on the cold January night I realized that Mi Cocina had gotten a very subtle but flattering facelift. I was dining with two friends, and it took me a while to notice that the Aztec-style wooden columns in the center of the dining room were new, as was the orchid-purple carpet and the booths looking out on Jefferson Street. My companions spotted another change.

“So when did the cabaret crowd find this place?” said John, squeezing a lime wedge into his glass of tequila. I looked up from the stainless steel bowl of tortilla chips to see what he was talking about: half a dozen tables boasting small groups of muscular, tanned gay men in tight-fitting short-sleeved shirts (no matter that it was 20 degrees outside), khaki pants and the trendiest hairstyles. But it wasn’t just the gay contingent that was so fashionably attired; the heterosexual diners were equally well-tailored (including the local TV personality in the next booth, pawing over his considerably younger girlfriend). It was all very Hollywood.

“I guess the diners are taking their cues from the subliminal messages,” John added, pointing to the three TV monitors peeking out of a shiny brass facade over the main bar. (Over in the side bar — “The Latin Lounge” — are three other monitors, set in panels of frosted glass with orange and yellow neon lights.) All six sets were showing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. How can a Tex-Mex joint attract anything but haute couture when Audrey Hepburn is in the room?

The irony is that the stuff we know as Tex-Mex has unglamorous culinary roots. Restaurant historian John Mariani calls it “an amalgam of Northern Mexican peasant food with Texas farm and cowboy fare.” At Mi Cocina, the food is still peasant fare, but the plates are thick china, the napkins are cloth, and the servers wear crisply starched blue shirts and long aprons. This is no taqueria but a Tex-Mex bistro. That’s the reason Mico Rodriguez, owner of the Dallas-based Mi Cocina chain (the Plaza location is its only franchise outside Texas), has a picture of the Eiffel Tower on the symbol-filled mural on the back wall, along with images of Mexican movie diva Delores Del Rio, the Statue of Liberty, a dancing couple and four gilded numbers spelling 1957, the year Rodriguez was born.

Rodriguez calls Mi Cocina “a boutique Mexican alternative” and his clientele “the A crowd.”

“We were patient after we first opened,” he said. “We listened to what our customers wanted, and we gave it to them.”

The biggest menu changes, he said, were “bigger portions and better-quality beef.” Oh, and turning down the heat on some of the spicier dishes. Kansas City diners like things bland, baby. Later, Rodriguez turned his attention to the décor. The former narrow smoking section was turned into a lounge. Another underused space, the basement, is now under construction to be a Latin dance club, called Apt., to open this summer.

If the now-defunct Annie’s Santa Fe (on the Plaza’s east side) was the ne plus ultra of Tex Mex dining (and drinking) in its heyday twenty years ago, it could not compete today with Mi Cocina, which is much more serious about the look and taste of its dishes and beverages. Its fare is more expensive than the burritos, tacos and fajitas served on Southwest Boulevard, but Rodriguez clearly understands that Plaza diners — who prefer a $9 Mambo Limousine (Sangria, margarita mix and chambord liqueur) to a cold beer — don’t mind paying for style.

Even a plate of basic appetizers, the Cocina Platter, is brought out on a Pampered Chef-style oval steel plate, tidily arranged with triangles of cheese quesadillas, bean and beef tostadas and a hefty mound of chunky guacamole. The crock of tortilla soup is the real thing here, not some timid vegetable concoction heaped with fried tortilla straws, but a hearty, cilantro-flavored broth with fat chunks of chicken breast, a thick wedge of avocado, onion, tomato, cheese, peas and green beans.

The dinners have definitely gotten more generous. I could barely finish a serving of two cheese enchiladas, smothered in a piquant, mahogany-colored chile con carne. And my friend Bob, a lifetime member of the Clean Plate Club, seemed overwhelmed by the luxury of a dinner served on multiple plates, the Luann, which included a guacamole chalupa, a beef taco, a cheese taco and a cheese enchilada.

On another visit, both Bob and Jennifer tackled sizzling plates of fajitas (another Texas innovation, introduced in Houston in 1973), preferring the fifty-fifty combination of beef and chicken, heaped with peppers and onions and served with more guacamole and lots of fresh-tasting pico de gallo. That was the night I paid much more attention to The Best Years of Our Lives on the monitors than my own unremarkable dinner, an enchilada served “modern” style, covered with a steaming pile of crisp, stir-fried vegetables.

I stayed much more focused a few nights later, when Ernie’s Chicken appeared: two plump, perfectly-grilled chicken breasts drenched in a decadent sauce made with double-cream cheese. It was almost unbearably delicious and vastly more exciting than Elvis Presley, at the peak of his charisma, gyrating up on the screens in Jailhouse Rock.

But how could even Elvis compete with all the stimulation in this lively room? The colors, the southwestern music, the noisy beautiful people gathered six-deep at the bar to drink and smoke and flirt? “This place has sex appeal,” said my friend Queen Bey, the jazz singer, motioning to our handsome Yugoslavian-born waiter. “Wrap up my enchiladas for me, baby,” she said with a wink. “I’ll eat ’em later.”

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews