Reservation for One: Barbacoa

Barbacoa Photos by Aaron Leimkuehler

Troost Avenue has been known as the racial and economic dividing line in Kansas City after decades of segregation. But now, with help from city and neighborhood leaders working with local developers, Troost is ready to write a new page in the history books, as the area is slowly developing a delicious and diverse array of food and drink spots.

Over the last five years, a slew of new restaurants, smoothie spots, bars, coffee shops, ice cream parlors, bakeries, and more are finding both sides of Troost Avenue—from north to south—an affordable and accessible area interested in attracting food businesses ready to put down roots and enhance its already diverse, eclectic, and welcoming community.

Barbacoa is the latest restaurant to open at 55th Street and Troost Avenue, in a spot that Justin Clark first put on the map in 2019 when he opened his casual dining spot, Urban Café, there. He later closed that location to focus on opening a restaurant by the same name inside the new Kansas City airport.

Tinga de Pollo

The trio of talent behind Barbacoa, the Spanish word for “barbecue,” started their Mexican barbecue journey in 2017 with the launch of Taco Tank, an original food-truck concept that served tacos and burritos generously filled with smoky barbecue meats. Roman Raya Jr. ran the food truck nights and weekends while holding down a full-time job. Reopening after Covid, Raya quit his day job and brought Madeline Buechter and his brother Phil Raya as co-owners. Today, in addition to Barbacoa, they still operate the Taco Tank inside the Iron District in North Kansas City.

For their first sit-down, full-service, casual-dining restaurant, they are keeping things pared back and simple by focusing on traditional Mexican-style barbecued meats along with smoked and grilled vegetables and turning those ingredients into fresh, creative dishes. The smoke and fire influence touches every dish at Barbacoa, including those on the dessert and the cocktail menus. Roman is the executive chef for Barbacoa, Phil is the sous chef, and Madeline is the bar manager, where she can be found behind the bar shaking up delicious drinks and keeping an eye on the dining room that seats 40.

The original interior has been refreshed. Banquettes that once flanked the walls have been removed and replaced with dark wood and black tables and chairs. It instantly gives the place a more pulled together, upscale appearance that highlights the original terrazzo floor. Paired with dark, moody teal-hued walls and a swipe of terra-cotta paint behind the bar, the restaurant feels sophisticatedly simple—perfect for a casual, yet modern, Mexican concept.

Within the ten dishes on the dinner menu, the reasonable prices, and the ample portion sizes, what stands out is this is not your typical Mexican-American mash-up menu. There are no free chips and salsa to start. Nothing is smothered in cheese or sour cream. There are no burritos or enchiladas on the dinner menu. Instead, it’s clean, modern Mexican cuisine that spotlights the ingredients and simple preparations. Each dish balances the forward flavors of the smoked meat and charred vegetables.

We ordered the elote as an appetizer, but it would have made for a fine vegetarian entrée or even a salad course. It came with five crispy, deep-fried masa fritters, perched atop a plate of grilled corn kernels drizzled with a tangy, smoked-mustard sauce reminiscent of a remoulade and sprinkled with fresh queso fresco. It was devoured by the time the entrées arrived.

The tinga de pollo, a crispy corn tostada piled high with shredded chicken smothered in a smoky chile rojo sauce, is topped with avocados, queso fresco, cabbage, and pickles. The toppings were fresh and plentiful, but since the toppings were chilled, the entire dish got cold quickly. It was a small price to pay for such an appetizing plate presentation, and I ate my second one the next day for lunch.

At $24, the smoked carnitas was one of the highest priced dishes on the menu, which I still found completely reasonable for this neighborhood spot. The plate was simple and unadorned—with chunks of smoked and confit pork shoulder next to fresh pico de gallo and garlic crema along with three Yoli tortillas—designed to assemble your own tacos. The meat was rich, but stuffed into a tortilla coupled with the tomato, onion, and cilantro flavors of the pico de gallo and drizzled with the outstanding garlic crema that cut the fat of the meat, it was my favorite dish of the night.

Coconut Flan

The creamy coconut flan we ordered for dessert was gone in four bites. A delightful arroz con leche, the traditional Mexican rice pudding dish, is a specialty of the house. It had all the sweet flavors of the warming spices tucked inside a puck of deep-fried white rice with golden, crunchy edges that was topped with a scoop of High Hopes vanilla ice cream and showered with pistachios. It was soft and crunchy all at once.

The drink menu has a smattering of wines and a few beers, with a much longer list of cocktails. For the traditionalist, there’s a margarita and a paloma, but I ordered the Royal Medicine, their version of a gimlet, which is made with coconut oil-washed gin, lime, blackberry liqueur, and a touch of maple syrup for sweetness. It tasted like a blackberry smash; perfect with the food I ordered.

Barbacoa could become a serious neighborhood hang, with a Mexican brunch menu that looks especially inviting. The service at Barbacoa was professional, friendly, and casual. Although we don’t live in the neighborhood, we were greeted at the door by a server who made us feel instantly like we belonged. Something as simple as that makes all the difference when a neighborhood restaurant treats everyone who comes in, not just their bread-and-butter regulars, like family and welcomed guests.

To be treated with kindness and care is something we could all use a little more of these days, and I felt that good vibe at Barbacoa.