Dining » Fat Mouth

South of the Border

Restaurant owners make their moves.

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As Mico Rodriguez, the founder and CEO of the Dallas-based M Crowd Restaurant Group, which owns Kansas City's Mi Cocina restaurant (see review) -- planning to expand his growing empire into Johnson County? "Yes, we're looking at locations in Overland Park," says Rodriguez, who hopes to have two or three Mi Cocinas in the Kansas City area. Some of M Crowd's other concept eateries, including the Taco Diner and Bianca Elena restaurants, could also open here.

Overland Park already has plenty of Mexican restaurants, including the one-month-old El Grande Mexican Buffet (6800 West 95th Street) in the long-vacant Amarillo Grill space. For $8 a person, dinner patrons can gorge themselves silly from vats filled with enchiladas, taquitos, potato tacos (and make-it-yourself beef versions), bean soup, menudo, fideo, carnitas, meatballs, quesadillas, fajitas and chips drenched in nacho cheese sauce. The place is owned by Chinese-born Baoqin Hu, who should add some music to the dining room. Heavy-metal tunes played on a tinny radio in the kitchen don't produce much atmosphere.

Sweeter sounds can be heard at Teller's Restaurant in Lawrence, which has undergone a lot of changes since manager James Truscello returned to convert the restaurant in the historic bank building back into an Italian trattoria. Truscello, an admitted perfectionist, has been tinkering with the menu since the first of the year in order to establish the location as a casual, mid-priced Italian restaurant after several unsuccessful years as a more upscale dining room.

"The restaurant still has the perception of being expensive, which it isn't," says Truscello, who left Teller's in 1997 to pursue other restaurant ventures in the Lawrence area, including opening the eclectic and sophisticated Pachamama's, of which he no longer holds any ownership.

By Lawrence standards, Teller's is upscale Italian (it doesn't serve spaghetti and meatballs, for example), but not too pricey. The most expensive dinner entrée on the current menu is beef tournedos with fontina and gorgonzola cheeses in port wine sauce at $22. The pasta selections range from $8 to $20, and a "family-sized" version of the superb penne Alfredo that I tasted last week, which came tossed in a light garlic cream sauce loaded with butter, parmesan and just a hint of nutmeg, was enough to feed at least four hungry people.

I loved the restaurant's crusty "bread" (wedges of baked pizza dough) and an eggplant appetizer: paper-thin slices of the vegetable, dipped in an airy egg batter, fried and topped with romano, gruyere, mozzarella and gorgonzola cheeses and pomodoro fresca.

The service is as informal as you'd expect in a college town: attractive young kids in Polo shirts and blue jeans who happily suggest their personal favorite menu offerings and, if they're not too swamped, tell their life stories. Happily, at that age, the revelations are short but amusing.

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