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.
Hailing from the Mexican state of Querétaro, the Ramirez family opened Botanas Premier Mexican Restaurant with the goal of sharing made-from-scratch food that’s full of flavor and closer to the style of cuisine they enjoy eating. The packed menu offers a vast and varied array of authentic eats like the traditional sopes, in which refried beans and a choice of meat are cupped in handmade masa boats that are deep-fried to crispy perfection, and the torta, a sizeable sandwich that we love with Botana’s house-made, mildly spicy chorizo. Another can’t-miss meal, the attractively plated camarones tropicales bursts with juicy grilled shrimp and comes with deep-fried plantains, rice subtly sweetened with coconut milk and a bright, fruity salsa combining tomatoes, cilantro, red onions and a touch of honey.
THE SECRET'S IN THE SAUCE
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.
Great American Taco Company is the kind of place taco lovers dream about. You can get traditional corn hard shell tacos made with chili-infused ground beef or citrus chicken. You can get more exotic tacos, including one stuffed with buffalo shrimp and bleu cheese and drizzled with spicy ranch. You can even mix sweet and savory with the Hawaiian Chicken taco that’s filled with citrus chicken, grilled pineapple, sweet chili sauce, cabbage, bacon, pineapple, white corn hominy salsa and cilantro citrus sour cream. But no matter what you order here, you absolutely must, must, must order a bowl of the Posole soup. A hatch green chili stew made with applewood-shredded pork and white corn hominy, this brothy wonder is the perfect complement to the creative tacos (especially the Hatch Green Chili pork taco with pico and pepper jack). If you’re not in the mood for a taco, there are some tasty taco relatives here, too. We love the zesty chicken quesadilla filled with four cheeses, bacon and citrus chicken and garnished with cilantro citrus sour cream and apple corn pico.
TACOS WITH A TWIST
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.
A BIT OF BIRRIA
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.