Southwest Missouri's Best Mexican Food

Southwest Missouri is dotted with Mexican restaurants both old and new and big and small, and after we talked to the people who make the magic happen at each restaurant, we learned that it’s all about the love.

Written by Stephanie Towne Benoit, Lillian Stone, Karlee Renkoski, Savannah Waszczuk & Dylan Whitaker | Photographed by Brandon Alms

Jun 2023

Love is a pile of freshly made tortilla chips. It’s a deep pool of homemade salsa, and it’s guacamole that’s mixed up right at the table. Love is tortillas that were made by the wrinkled hands of an abuela, and it’s the fall-apart, perfectly seasoned meat that was slow cooked for hours and hours. Most of all, love is what’s evident from the people at each and every restaurant featured in this story. Southwest Missouri is dotted with Mexican restaurants both old and new and big and small, and after we talked to the people who make the magic happen at each restaurant, we learned that it’s all about the love. The love of quality food and feeding people, the love of one’s culture and the even greater love of sharing rich traditions, flavors and recipes with the rest of the world. One dish at a time, restaurant after restaurant, it’s all about the delicious, decadent, just-can’t-get-enough-of-it love. Lucky for you, this love is the kind you can taste for yourself. Dig in.


And by this we mean the signature chipotle cream sauce at Jose Locos Mexican Restaurant. It’s made by Roy Valdovinos, who co-owns the family restaurant with his wife, Maria Valdovinos. A favorite of many customers, the chipotle cream sauce here is a sour cream–based creation that’s kicked up with chipotles, ranch seasonings and a little bit of love, and it can be found accompanying several dishes from the Chicken with Chipotle Cream to the fully loaded Burrito Goyo with beef and beans. Many other sauces here are also homemade (try the hot sauce if you dare!), as well as all the salsas, guacamole and of course the ooey-gooey cheese dip. And let’s not forget all the house-seasoned, slow-cooked, tender meats.


Local favorite Tortilleria Perches is nailing it. The restaurant combines the sweetest of family success stories with a massive menu of authentic dishes. Jesus Perches and his mother, Maria, got their start in 2005 as a grocery selling Maria’s homemade tortillas and tortilla chips. Public demand for Maria’s recipes eventually became too great for the tiny market, and the family expanded the restaurant into their current full-service space. The slow-cooked carnitas tend to steal the show; they’re lovingly cooked with oranges, garlic and onion and absolutely packed with flavor, then fried. The pork is so tender that a knife is out of the question—simply scoop it onto Tortilleria’s warm white corn tortillas and enjoy.


There’s a process to creating the perfect tamale, and Iguana Roja has it down to an art. First, large, juicy pork roasts are rubbed with a special house-made seasoning blend and then slow roasted for hours. Next, the pork is pulled into juicy, flavorful strips, and a hefty pile of it is placed in a loving blanket of masa made with maseca (Mexican flour). This combo is then wrapped and rolled into a cornhusk like a cute lil’ pig in a blanket, and it’s steamed to the perfect temperature and served. After you recover from the blow-your-mind deliciousness of your first tamale bite, you’ll happily gobble the rest up and then dream about when you can order the hand-made wonders again. Other favorites here include the not-so-traditional Chili Relleno made with beef, pork, mixed veggies, quinoa, almonds and four cheeses and served with red pepper coulis and cilantro-lime crema. And of course there’s the agave-adobe shrimp stack appetizer made with chilled gulf shrimp, roasted corn and black bean salsa and chunky guac. Mmm, gimme that guac! No matter what you order here, you’ll love the starter of tortilla chips topped with the restaurant’s signature house-made “fairy dust,” a special seasoning blend that includes house-roasted peppers, cumin, annatto seeds and more. Wash it all down with a signature margarita—we love the Iguana Roja marg made with pineapple and vanilla bean–infused tequila and muddled jalapeños.


Ordinary is probably the last word people use to describe Not’cho Ordinary Taco truck, which is typically posted in Bolivar when it’s not taking its tasty fare to festivals, events and other spots around the region. Each taco boasts bright, punchy combos whipped up by brothers Casey and Corey McTavish. Take, for instance, the Hawaiian Surf and Turf consisting of tender slices of teriyaki-glazed steak and juicy shrimp paired with tangy pineapple chutney, Swiss cheese and subtly spicy aioli. For a spin on a down-home classic, try the Chicken-N-Waffles taco wrapped in a made-to-order waffle shell; order it Country Style, in which the hand-battered fried buttermilk chicken is smothered in rich homemade white gravy and cheddar cheese, or Sweet-N-Spicy with buffalo chicken, maple syrup and powdered sugar. Or, if you’re feeling daring, try a combo of both styles. Wacky? Maybe. Extraordinary? Most definitely.


Opened in December of last year by husband-and-wife co-owners Cesar Ortiz and Sandra Gonzalez, Cesar’s Old Mexico brings welcome authenticity to the Springfield dining scene. Take the birria tacos, which are common in Jalisco, Cesar’s home state in Mexico. Slowly stewed and flavored with three kinds of dried chiles and other seasonings like cumin and oregano, the moist, distinctly flavored beef is nicely offset in the tacos by chopped onions, fresh cilantro and a little creamy guacamole. The sopes—which come with a choice of meat with beans, shredded lettuce, tomato and a little crumbled cojita cheese cupped in a crispy deep-fried tortilla—are another hit, as are the handmade cheese, bean and pork–stuffed pupusas. These popular treats  are served with Salvadoran-style tomato sauce and pickled cabbage for a filling meal. 


No matter what you order at La Paloma Mexican Grill, you can bet that it will weigh on the fancier side of Mexican fare, as things like Swai fish tacos and Steak Feliz with steak, shrimp and the freshest grilled veggies help fill the restaurant’s multi-page menu. Regulars of the east-side eatery swear by the restaurant’s chicken-and-spinach enchiladas, which are lovingly filled with tender grilled chicken and fresh baby spinach before being topped with a creamy roasted poblano and spinach cream sauce, queso fresco, roasted bell peppers and some sour cream for a quick, tangy zip. 


The fish tacos at the original Purple Burrito location are a nautical delight unlike any other. The tacos are served in fresh corn tortillas and positively ooze a creamy homemade tartar sauce. The tortillas are filled with crispy, deep-fried fish, crunchy shredded veggies and a refreshing salsa. Our resident fish taco expert suggests ordering the tacos for dinner Tuesday through Saturday; they taste noticeably better. All four of the 417-land Purple Burrito locations serve the tasty California-style tacos as part of the Lopez family’s original vision to bring California-style Mexican food to Springfield.


The scrumptious, simply prepared fare at El Quetzal Restaurant & Bakery spans numerous cuisines, including Mexican (with dishes like the tender stewed pollo guisado and juicy carne asada), Guatemalan and Salvadoran. For a surprisingly filling meal, order the pupusas, of which owner Mildred Guzman says about 400 are sold in a single weekend. Filled with either loroco (an edible flower) and cheese or a choice of savory meat, the tasty masa pockets come four to a plate for only five bucks. With all the leftover cash in your wallet, grab some goodies to take home. Check out the authentic Latin American products displayed in the front of the restaurant and pick up a few of the Mexican and Guatemalan breads and pastries made fresh every day in the bakery.


Imagine how you feel when you’re getting ready for a snazzy evening out on the town. You take what you have, and then you make it the very best it can be with all of the right clothes, jewelry and accessories. This is exactly what Elotes Don Toño does to prepare its Mexican-style corn on the cob. They start with a basic ear of sweet corn, boil it up right and then dress it to the nines with a sinful blend of mayonnaise, cream, Parmesan cheese and chili powder. Then, voila!, it’s the belle of the ball! This corn is served either on the cob or cut off (depending on your preference), and it makes a great side to any of the food truck’s other favorites, which include asada tacos and Dorinachos—nachos made with finger-staining cheese Doritos instead of the basic, expected and oh-so-boring pile of tortilla chips. If you’re in the mood for a sammie, order a torta made on bread that’s freshly baked daily at Leslie’s Mexican Café & Bakery, or if you’re feeling adventurous, try out the beef tongue that’s slow cooked with garlic, onion and special seasonings.


The Hernandez family opened Primas Mexican Grill (multiple 417-land locations) in 2006 after reworking the concept of their first restaurant, La Mexican Kitchen. Their tasty legacy dates back to 1989, when the family opened the original La Mexican Kitchen in Fort Smith, Arkansas, after immigrating to the U.S. from Guanauato, Mexico. Today, they’re serving up fresh dishes inspired by the flavors of their hometown. Case in point: the Bistek Norteno, a perfectly zesty, seasoned flank steak. The juicy steak gets a flavor kick from a house seasoning blend, which includes garlic and cumin. Looking for something a little more indulgent? The chili relleno features crispy fried pasilla peppers that are stuffed with seasoned chicken or beef and smothered with zingy ranchero sauce and layers of gooey cheese. Hungry yet?


If you have any trouble deciding what to order at Arnie’s Barn, take a gander at the mouthwatering pork shoulder cooking within view of the dining room in the wood-fired rotisserie. That juicy, subtly smoky, lightly caramelized pork, which was marinated in a roasted green chile and tomatillo sauce, will soon make its way into the eatery’s popular carnitas tacos, which are topped with more of the green chile and tomatillo mixture, plus chopped onions, cilantro and queso fresco. Or, you could always go with one of Johnny Morris’ favorites from Big Cedar Lodge and Top of the Rock Executive Chef Mike Halbert’s thoughtful menu: the creamy buttermilk corn chowder, which has a Mexican twist thanks to a mix of red and green peppers, plus poblanos, some cayenne and toppings like herbaceous cilantro and a crisp green chile corn fritter.


Served three to a plate, sprinkled with cilantro and resting in small dollops of fresh guacamole, the colorful, mouth-watering ahi tuna taco appetizer at Cantina Laredo may be 417-land’s prettiest platter of tacos. But this dish’s merits don’t stop there: The tacos’ lightly marinated sushi-grade ahi tuna pairs well with a touch of creamy chipotle aioli, tangy pickled onions and a crunchy jicama slaw. The enchilada de avocado is another nicely balanced plate. Avocado wedges, melty Monterey Jack, some poblano peppers and chopped artichoke hearts fill the enchiladas, which are topped with a drizzle of cool sour cream, some cooked red pepper and green tomatillo sauce, adding a nice zing to this vegetarian, gluten-free dish. 

[MORE: 33 Best Tacos In Springfield And Beyond]


The Case for Mexican Villa

I get tired of people complaining that Mexican Villa is not Mexican food. It may not be the most authentic Mexican food, but who cares? Really? Why do you care? Does its TexOzarkMex style of food serve thousands of happy 417-landers every year? Yes. Does it have a historical value with people? Yes. Does its hot sauce make you feel like you just licked the surface of the sun? Yes. Minus the scalded tongue, those are all good things.

I’ll be honest. I prefer stuff like birria from Old Mexico and carnitas from Tortilleria Perches, but once a year I will dominate a couple of crunchy tacos from the Villa. And you best believe I douse those tacos in that bitingly sweet taco sauce that Villa makes. I even keep a bottle of that sugary sauce in my fridge. 

You have two types of Villa people. You are either a Burrito Enchilada Style or a Sancho Enchilada Style. If you are not familiar, the only difference is the Sancho does not have refried beans. It’s clearly the superior option. Hands down. Fat confession: You can get a half order, but I never do. I’m selfish. Deal with it. I get a full order, eat it all and then hate myself. When the Sancho arrives, the only healthy-looking thing is the sprinkle of shredded lettuce. Matter of fact, the lettuce is the only crunchy texture in this dish. It’s a big plate of ooey gooey delicious mush. And that may not sound appetizing to you, but oh man, it’s so good. I love it. 

I love the Villa, and I don’t care who knows it.

Mexican Villa is more than just a restaurant to me. It evokes memories, and I’m sure some of you can relate to that. You may laugh at me, but check this out. When I was a kid (10 or 11) and would come visit my grandparents in Springfield, we would always either eat at Mexican Villa or Hamby’s. I’m 35 now, and the Villa has been in my life for 24 years. And for a lot of you, the Villa has been around your entire life. Since 1951, Mexican Villa has inhabited Springfield. It now has seven locations and clearly knows what it’s doing. How about you show some respect?—Dylan Whitaker