Terra Mexican Cuisine avoids suburban clichés

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I don’t know exactly how many Mexican restaurants are in Johnson County, but I’ll bet that if you took a burrito from each, you’d be able to spell out the word ENOUGH so big, you’d see it from space.

There are, I’m saying, plenty of places in the whitest part of the metro to eat Tex-Mex made for vanilla tastes: boring burritos, drab dips, tacos best priced by the pound. True, Overland Park’s Frida’s Contemporary Mexican Cuisine offers a varied and authentic-seeming menu, but that’s a rare exception. Out south, Mexican food is rarely ethnic food.

Now, however, comes a surprising new player out this way: Terra Mexican Cuisine, which opened this summer and isn’t very far from Frida’s. It’s neither as polished nor as imaginative as that place, but it’s more than good enough to root for its success.

Arturo and Maru De Luna’s restaurant was conceived as a partnership between the De Lunas and the owners of Frida’s. But Arturo De Luna decided to go a different direction, taking over a space last occupied by a sandwich shop. The resulting venue looks and feels more like a suburban neighborhood hangout than it does a place with serious culinary aspirations, and indeed the focus in the early going was a bit scattered.

“When we opened, we only had a few tacos on the menu,” Arturo De Luna tells me. “But people coming in wanted tacos, so we added more and created a separate taco section.”

Those tacos are more sophisticated than you might expect in such an unassuming location. One, for instance, is centered on slow-braised pork confit, with a piquant salsa verde. It’s delicious. So is a taco that combines crispy, twice-fried chicharrón with roasted shrimp and soothing guacamole in a soft flour tortilla. You won’t find the usual ground-beef tacos here, I’m happy to report. Instead, you find succulent carne asada, which comes in a flour tortilla, a corn taco shell — or in a tortilla de queso, which is, yes, a taco shell molded from cheese. (It sounds Taco Bell but isn’t.)

There are no combination plates, no sizzling fajita platters, no chimichangas. They are not missed, especially not when you can order oven-roasted, tamarind-marinated pork ribs that all but fall off the bones. The glaze gives the meat a hint of sweetness, well accented by the colorful swaths of puréed beets, sweet potato and peas it arrives with, along with a lightly charred cobette of grilled corn.

In this heavily air-conditioned zip code, I suppose there’s no bad time to order a cold-weather dish like the beef stew I tried here. I look forward to eating it again after autumn’s first freeze, and in the meantime, I’ll remember its enticingly seasoned but not fiery sauce of pasilla chile peppers, its generous portions of baby carrots and corn, and its sautéed green beans.

The best-selling dish at Terra so far is the enchiladas Suizas, a stylish spin on the staple dish that’s heavy on the dairy (Suiza, Spanish for Swiss, is a reference to the lavish use of cream and cheese in the preparation) and very, very tasty. The enchiladas, filled with chicken or a cheese-and-onion mixture, comes smothered in a tomatillo cream sauce.

Most of the entrées — and all the tacos — are served with a choice of side dish, my favorites being the vegetarian black beans and a delicately seasoned red-cabbage salad. All the sides, from spicy (grilled jalapeños and onions) to cooling (a fine cactus salad), complement chef Casey Sullivan’s main courses beautifully.

The dessert menu includes sugar-dusted churros and a house-made cheesecake, but the standout dolce at Terra is Maru De Luna’s “pastel imposible”: a layer of moist chocolate cake topped with a thick, creamy layer of flan.

Terra’s menu contains an overabundance of the word “special,” suggesting a kitchen that is still learning its strengths. Some dishes are distinctive enough to live up to that label, though, and I’m hopeful that people will seek them out. The De Lunas have put their restaurant in an uninspired location, in the heart of a Kansas suburb swamped by more ordinary Tex Mex choices, but that doesn’t make Terra unworthy of discovery.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews