In Kansas, one path to unity — and economic recovery — begins with tacos

January 29, 2021 3:20 am

Jarocho Pescados Y Mariscos has two locations in the Kansas City metro, but this one, at 719 Kansas Avenue, is the one in Kansas City, Kansas. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

As we close out the first month of 2021 with only the slightest of reasons to believe it’ll be any better than 2020, I’m setting aside my dubiousness about the call for unity to argue in favor of something I know we can all agree on. It begins with tacos.

They’re serious business in Kansas City, Kansas, which capitalized on that fact last fall by launching the KCK Taco Trail. One could dismiss the KCK Taco Trail as just a promotional gimmick, a simple online list where people who are motivated by such things can earn rewards — decals! hot sauce! a T-shirt! — by patronizing Mexican restaurants in Wyandotte County.

Or one could celebrate it as a stroke of hometown genius.

“Obviously, Kansas City, Kansas, is a melting pot of culture, and we really wanted to promote the authentic side of Kansas City through food,” says Maila Yang, the marketing manager at the Kansas City Kansas Convention & Visitors Bureau.

They started thinking about how to promote the city through its food culture early last year, before the pandemic walloped both the restaurant industry and the travel industry.

Kansas City, Kansas, has been a place on the rise ever since the Kansas Speedway opened a decade ago, followed by the sprawling Village West shopping destination and the Sporting Kansas City soccer stadium. But it’s also a place where people still struggle (2019 Census data shows a 20% poverty rate, compared to 10% statewide). And some of the areas that struggle the most are also the most culturally rich.

Los Altos de Jalisco #2 at 12th and Central in Kansas City, Kansas, is one of many Mexican restaurants on Central Avenue, some of which are on the Kansas City, Kansas, Taco Trail. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

“We really wanted to get people into the neighborhoods,” Yang says. “We know that a lot of them are locally owned, immigrant owned, small community restaurants. We wanted to bring visitors and locals in to see true neighborhoods and really show the authentic side of Kansas City.”

Food is always the way. But in a county with no majority ethnic group and culinary influences from all over the world, what could bring it all together? They thought about barbecue.

“Barbecue definitely draws people in, but it’s a really hard story to tell because it’s so specific,” she says. Also, let’s be real. The Kansas City barbecue story has been told, as Yang puts it, “many a time.”

Tacos, on the other hand — so simple. So obvious.

“Literally in Kansas City, Kansas, there is a Mexican restaurant on every street,” she says.

In the final quarter of 2020, since Taco Trail’s launch on Oct. 1 to the end of the year, Yang says, more than 5,100 people signed up for a Taco Trail Pass. More than 4,100 people checked in at restaurants on the list, and diners had earned 276 prizes: decals for going to five restaurants; jars of salsa for going to 15; T-shirts for going to 30; and championship flags for eating at all 53 restaurants on the list.

“People were so excited,” Yang says. “People were taking this as a challenge, going to complete the whole trail.”

Burrito La Chiquita, at 13th and Minnesota, is one of the stops on the Kansas City, Kansas, Taco Trail. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

What people couldn’t understand, she says, was why hadn’t anyone thought of this sooner?

But let’s not dwell on the past. Let’s consider the future, and where all roads lead: to food.

“They’re right on track with this project,” says Bridgette Jobe, the Kansas director of tourism, who was executive director of the KCK visitor’s bureau for 21 years before leaving to lead the state office.

Inspiring people to discover what’s right in front of them makes sense after a year in which all plans for promoting Kansas tourism went nowhere. As Jobe puts it, “2020 was the worst year in the history of the travel industry.”

But people still want to get away from wherever they are. And one of the few positives to come out of the pandemic, Jobe says, is that Kansans have been traveling in Kansas. The state parks had one of their best years, for example.

She points to a collaboration between the convention and visitors bureaus in Topeka and Lawrence, encouraging people to come explore each other’s towns with discounts to restaurants and other attractions.

“People are doing different things from what they’ve done before,” she says.

G.G.’s Barbacoa Cafe, at 210 South 7th Street, is one stop on the Kansas City, Kansas, Taco Trail that’s open for breakfast. (C.J. Janovy/Kansas Reflector)

So, in the months ahead, Kansans should not be surprised to learn that their state is a culinary destination.

“The whole idea is for people to think differently about Kansas and some of the great food that we have. That’s the most I can tell you without letting the cat out of the bag,” Jobe says.

“Some people go to historical sites, some people want to be outdoors, some take an RV, some want a hotel with room service,” she adds. “Everyone travels differently, but the one consistent thing is, when you go to a community you’re going to eat.”

Let the healing begin, Kansas.

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C.J. Janovy
C.J. Janovy

C.J. Janovy is a veteran journalist with deep roots in the Midwest. She was the Opinion Editor for the Kansas Reflector from launch unit l June 2021. Before joining the Reflector, she was an editor and reporter at Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR. Before that, she edited the city’s alt-weekly newspaper, The Pitch, where Janovy and her writers won numerous local, regional and national awards. Her book “No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas” was among the Kansas Notable Books of 2019.