Their Casa es Su Casa
Last fall, the Pitch did a cover story on the unexpected wonders to be discovered up and down Metcalf Avenue, the historic main artery of Overland Park (“Cruisin’ the ‘Calf,” September 23, 2004). I was one of the writers who contributed to that project, and until then, it had never been one of my favorite streets. With a few exceptions, I thought Metcalf was a classic exercise in suburban sprawl: ugly architecture, whacked-out zoning, and every chain restaurant imaginable.
But a leisurely exploration of Metcalf can yield some culinary surprises where you least expect them. That’s how a few of my friends stumbled upon the four-month-old Tienda Casa Paloma, a combination Mexican market and cantina. It may be the only place in town where you can get — day or night — buttermilk pancakes, soft-shell tacos, a St. Jude votive candle, fresh tomatillos, a can of coconut juice, a frosty glass bottle of grapefruit soda, and a container of dishwashing soap.
I first learned about the place from my friend Rick, who described it as “a cheery little Mexi grocery-bistro with a fresh salsa bar and good, cheap, fast, interesting food.” He mentioned the things he had eaten there, including squash-blossom quesadillas, which triggered a flashback to a distant afternoon when I was sitting at an uncomfortable table but enjoying a cheesy quesadilla stuffed with squash blossoms. I’d bought it at a lunch counter with the same name, Tienda Casa Paloma, at Union Station. Was there a connection?
There is, though the story gets somewhat complicated. Lisa and Bernardino Lara opened the first Tienda Casa Paloma as a counter operation in the food court at Union Station in the winter of 2002, serving traditional American and Mexican breakfast dishes as well as tacos, tortas and quesadillas. Eighteen months later, the Laras moved out of the food court over a weekend, says a Union Station source, brazenly breaking their lease.
“We couldn’t afford to stay in business there,” Lisa says, “even though I loved the building and the connection we had with the historic old Harvey House room. But other restaurants kept closing around us. First the Chinese place, then Fitz’s downstairs. And the lunch crowd coming into the food court kept dwindling.”
After much acrimonious squabbling between the Laras and the Union Station administration (a source close to the negotiations contends that records actually show improvement in Tienda Casa Paloma’s business), the parties have hammered out a financial settlement. “But no one has signed it yet,” Lisa says.
Lisa is praying — perhaps lighting one of those $2 candles to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases — that the final settlement won’t bankrupt the new business, which opened in January in surroundings distinctly less glamorous than Union Station. The dinky strip mall at 82nd Street and Metcalf isn’t much to look at from the outside. Lisa, who lives a few blocks away, had barely noticed it herself until the day she made a wrong turn off Metcalf and saw a “for rent” sign on the low-slung building.
“I had been close to signing a lease for a place in Olathe, and it didn’t work out,” she says. “When I looked in the window at 8220 Metcalf, the owner came out to see what I was doing. We barked at each other and have been friends ever since.”
The space had been vacated by a clothing store, but the Laras learned that at one point it had been a pizza joint — so the existing plumbing, electrical work and a grease trap made the conversion into a small-scale restaurant almost economical. Still, while Bernardino worked to build the interior of the new market-bistro, Lisa took a job at the airport to pay the bills.
“We’ve put everything we have into this business,” Lisa says as she bounces the Laras’ 7-month-old daughter, Carolina, on her lap. “And we believe in its growth and potential.”
So do Tienda Casa Paloma’s fans, including one guy who eats there almost every day. They like its informal, laid-back style, with mismatched tables and booths scattered around a spacious main room, which is lined by shelves stocked with cans of pickled peppers, burlap bags of basmati rice, cardboard cartons of plantains, and cartons of pure lard. Carolina dashes around in one of those rolling baby contraptions, and Lisa whirls even faster, taking orders at the counter, dumping ice into the zinc tub of soda-pop bottles, brewing coffee and making change.
My friend Lou Jane cringed at eating pollo in pipian — tender chicken breast hidden under a thick blanket of topaz-colored pumpkin-seed sauce — off a Styrofoam plate. “I hate eating with plastic utensils and throwaway plates,” she said. But that was her only complaint.
Besides, china plates and a dishwashing machine would force the Laras to raise prices and ruin one of Tienda Casa Paloma’s biggest attractions: wonderful inexpensive dinners. A plate of pork in salsa verde with beans, rice and corn tortillas for $6.50? A giant breakfast for less than five bucks? I say bring on the Styrofoam!
I’ve eaten four meals there and haven’t been disappointed once. In fact, I have daydreams about those squash-blossom quesadillas, gooey with molten-white cheese and flavored with just a hint of pungent epazote. I swoon at the thought of the chicken enchiladas smothered in a dark, rich mole that was one night’s special. And can we talk about Bernardino’s thick, fat tamales steamed in shiny banana leaves?
Lou Jane might have sniffed at the disposable plates and utensils, but she was suitably impressed by the fresh-tasting guacamole, the crunchy tortilla chips we dipped in Bernardino’s golden hot sauce, and the thick burritos stuffed with oven-roasted shredded beef. I had the same beef heaped on a torta, but the oversized roll was too big and unmanageable to manhandle, so I ate it with a fork. “Too much bread,” Lou Jane said.
That didn’t stop me from pushing away the husk of torta and opening a clear plastic box containing a generously iced slab of tres leches cake, which was fluffier than I had expected and layered with crushed pineapple. It’s imported from a Mexican bakery in Belton — who knew? — but the Laras do make their own rich, custardlike flan, which also comes in a plastic box.
Lou Jane admired the convivial atmosphere in the room. “Customers wander over and talk to each other,” she noticed. “It’s like a neighborhood hangout.”
A few days later, I dragged my friends Bob and Ned to Tienda Casa Paloma for breakfast, even though Ned loathed the idea of eating in a Johnson County strip mall. In minutes, he was seduced by the place. “It’s very comfortable, very original,” he said, digging into a plastic plate of scrambled eggs and crumbled chorizo. “And who needs fine china in this setting?”
I confess, I do prefer drinking my coffee from a mug rather than from the paper cups at Tienda Casa Paloma, but it was Roasterie brew and strong enough to serve as a nice counterpoint to the spicy huevos rancheros and all the sweet, sticky maple syrup I had poured over my Texas-style French toast. Bob’s eyes were much bigger than his estómago, but he plowed his way through a mound of chips and guacamole and a plate of chorizo and eggs before tackling a hefty plate of fluffy biscuits topped with a creamy gravy studded with Jimmy Dean sausage. We practically rolled him out the front door.
“I really like this place,” Ned said, “but I’ll never be able to find it again. I get totally lost in Overland Park.”
Lost? Just hop on Metcalf, take a western turn at 82nd Street and you’re there. Now eat up.