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One new Mexican restaurant preserves a building; another, a family's recipes

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There's an old movie gag, dating back to the beginning of the motion-picture industry, in which a husband tells his wife that he'll be working late at the office. The next scene has the man throwing back a cocktail at a saloon conveniently named "The Office."

That's one of the reasons that Victor Martinez calls his restaurant and sports bar Mi Oficina. His customers, he says, can tell people that they're at the office, and they'd be telling the truth, sort of. Martinez took over a historic old saloon space — it dates back to the early 1900s — at the corner of 28th Street and Southwest Boulevard that suffered a major fire a couple of years ago.

Speaking of hard-drinking actors, the joint even has a movie connection. It was a neighborhood watering hole operated by a Kansas City cop named Beery who had two sons, Wallace and Noah. Both became film stars in the 1930s, but Wally, who liked a drink or two, was nearly as famous for sexually roughing up his first wife, Gloria Swanson, as he was for movies such as Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight. Back in the 1920s and '30s, the building's second floor was reportedly a busy brothel. (It's now an apartment.)

In much more recent times, the location has been home to a couple of short-lived Mexican restaurants, including El Patio, which José "Don Pepe" Hernandez ran until 2002. After the fire in 2008, the building was auctioned off. But much of the damage was on the second floor, so Martinez says he didn't have to do a hell of a lot to get the ground level ready to reopen as Mi Oficina a couple of months ago. The attractive bar that Don Pepe created is still there, and Martinez has put in some black leatherette booths and several TV monitors — it's a sports bar, after all. Mexican pop tunes play over the sound system.

"Is this really a restaurant?" Georgina asked nervously on our first visit, with Truman and Bob. "It feels just like a bar."

It is a bar, but the kitchen puts out some excellent fare, including an unusual but fabulous fresh guacamole that bears no resemblance to the creamy green mixture served at most of Mi Oficina's Southwest Boulevard rivals. This guac is a thick, chunky blend of chopped tomatoes, onion, avocado and cilantro that's excellent with the freshly fried tortilla chips. And the thick choriquezo — oven-baked cheese and chorizo — isn't a dipping sauce in the traditional manner, but it's also really fine with the chips.

We were a little wary when we first walked in because no one, not even an employee, seemed to be in the building. The waitress was back in the kitchen helping the cooks, but she quickly seated our little group at a table, with drinks, chips and salsa, and menus. Still, I wouldn't call the service here snappy, exactly, and Truman was concerned that we might be there all afternoon just to eat lunch. But things worked out just fine. And having eaten at Mi Oficina twice now, I can say that the food is a lot better than you might expect.

Martinez uses a variety of meats for his tacos and tortas, including beef tongue, ham, breaded steak, and pork leg. And his chile relleño is one of the best in town: freshly roasted poblanos stuffed with cheese, lightly fried and doused in a peppery red sauce; other Tex-Mex dishes such as chimichangas and fajitas are also first-rate. He offers chorizo and eggs on the lunch menu, along with hot chicken wings and a Hawaiian hamburger with pineapple, ham and cheese.

The snooty Georgina loved the joint so much, she's been back a couple of times. Right now, it's her office, too.

Over in Lee's Summit, a different family-owned restaurant serves simple, unassuming Mexican fare in a sunny storefront on this hamlet's main drag. Maggie's Authentic Mexican Foods is the creation of 29-year-old Ryan Schnabel; he's a former nurse who turned to catering and, seven months ago, opened a restaurant named for his mother, Margaret Guardado Schnabel. She was raised in St. Joseph with her 16 brothers and sisters, the children of hardworking Mexican immigrants who fed their family well.

"I only use family recipes given to me by my grandmother, my mother and her sisters," Schnabel says.

These home-style recipes are part of the charm of Maggie's — and part of its problem. Schnabel follows the Guardado family recipes to the letter, which means there's no chocolate in the spicy mole sauce, and he doesn't roast the poblano peppers for his chile relleno before filling them with cheddar — cheddar! — and frying them. "It looks like a fried catfish," Truman said.

But Truman is a lot more sympathetic to Maggie's eccentricities than I am. "It's a charming small-town taqueria," he said, scolding me when I cringed at the lukewarm temperature of the queso dip served with the fried flour tortilla chips. "He's trying awfully hard."

I agree with that. Schnabel is a bright and accommodating young restaurateur who is learning a difficult business. Until he opened Maggie's last year, he had never worked in a restaurant. And to his credit, the chicken mole was tasty, and I liked the light, puffy tacos. Still, there's a bland quality to many of the dishes, which makes me wonder whether Grandmother Guardado tried to please everyone in her large St. Joseph family.

Because Schnabel prepares his dishes in the same way that his relatives prepared them, there are no seafood dishes — not even fish tacos — on the menu. "I didn't grow up eating seafood," Schnabel says. "If I was preparing seafood dishes, I'd be guessing how to make them."

Maggie's has only 31 seats, and it's decorated with family photographs, including a blown-up picture of the Guardado family in the 1950s, with tiny Maggie in the center.

Schnabel's re-creation of her food is solid, filling and modestly priced. And to his credit, he uses real china and flatware to serve dinners and lunches, even though customers order at the counter and fetch their own beverages. As small as it is, the restaurant would probably work better as a full-service operation.

"I'm thinking about that," Schnabel says. "It's pretty small, but I'm learning a lot about the restaurant business."

Schnabel's restaurant won't ever be mistaken for a sports bar. Yes, he has a liquor license, but only to serve bottled beers and margaritas. If you want something more potent, you'll have to hang out at the office. At least the one on Southwest Boulevard.

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