Our Man in KC: Alvin Ailey Gala and a Tale of Two Tacos (+Mezcal)

Damian Lair with Sharon Hoffman at the KCFAA Gala.

Ailey Returns

In Good Company” was the theme for this year’s Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey Gala—and with the most recent gala having occurred in spring 2019, supporters were ready to party—in good company. The evening’s festivities began with guests, donned in their best finery, lined up to enter the historic Folly Theater. It felt like I was on 42nd Street in New York. The only thing missing was the hum of Times Square and a wafting scent of honey-roasted nuts. 

We were gathered for a performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Ailey II. But first, we were greeted by gala co-chairs, Gina Hull and Dr. Marjorie Williams and honorary co-chairs Sharon & John Hoffman and Drs. Everlyn & Roger Williams, Jr.. Though I hadn’t made it to my seat yet from being backstage, I heard from numerous people that the Hoffmans gave the most touching (and tearful) tribute to this organization that captured their hearts decades ago. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a nod to Sharon, who personally recruited me to join the board earlier this year, as she does her best to “retire.” We all know she can’t. Ahead of the performance, Debby Ballard was also recognized for her years of support with the Janet K. Miller Award. 

At long last—a night of dance in a packed theater. And there’s nothing quite like an Ailey II performance. It’s an indescribable, transportive experience, full of fluidity and sensuality. It takes you to church, then moments later plunges you into uncomfortable feelings of cultural exclusion. And then brings you back. 

Following the performance, we made our way en masse to the neighboring Downtown Marriott Hotel ballroom. Tammy Edwards and Melanie Miller stroked our heartstrings before a lively round of live-auction bidding and fundraising to support the programming and opportunities that KCFAA provides to our community all year long. We dined, and then we danced—like it had been three years. From the first spin, Joseph Macklin had the dance floor covered, and it remained that way for hours. Sometimes, you just need to dance. 

Spotted: Congressman Emanuel & Dianne Cleaver, Christy & Bill Gautreaux, Nancy Lee & Jonathan Kemper, Charlotte Kemper, Mary Kemper Wolf & Gary Wolf, Bunni & Paul Copaken, Andrea & David Feinberg, Maurice Watson, Ursula Terrasi, Gloria Rudd, Ratana & Oscar Tshibanda, Terry Anderson & Michael Henry, Lynn & Lance Carlton, Kim Klein, McClain Bryant Macklin, Brian Williams, Crissy Dastrup, Jermaine Reed, Meredith Miles

A Tale of Two Tacos (+ Mezcal)

You might be familiar with Tiki Taco—that adorable little walk-up taco shop on 39th Street. But you might not know that it recently experienced a major growth spurt. New owners and a cheeky new vision have expanded the late-night window into a full-blown restaurant next door. (Don’t worry—you can still order at the window until midnight on weekends).

Its 90’s-inspired interiors vibed clear references to The Max on Saved by the Bell. Which—when did I become old enough that my TV adolescence has suddenly become retro? “Yikes—I need a drink,” I thought. And a drink I was served. I smartly ordered “whatever will look the cutest on Instagram,” and a Lava Flow piña colada with strawberry purée was whipped up for my screen-worthy fantasy. It was as delicious as it was pretty. They have a full lineup of other frozen and blended cocktails to please your eye, mouth, or both. The Poco Picante with tequila, jalapeño, lime, basil, and coconut looked like another winner—as did the various milk punches. 

When it came to food—naturally, I wanted to try everything. But I quickly realized that the recent footprint expansion was accompanied by a commensurate menu expansion. So, I picked out a thoughtful variety: Chips and salsa with all four fresh salsas ranging from mild to hottest. Hottest was no joke, but beyond that, the rest were pretty mild. For a burrito, I had the Thai chili pork (originally created for one of the partners’ former food truck, Westport Street Fare). It was a tantalizing Thai/Mexi taste-bud marriage. 

I have a rule that if there’s a chimichanga on a menu, I order it, and this was not the day to default on personal agreements. It was a nice size and more of a flatter square than the traditional squatty roll, which I enjoyed. There were Tiki fries with pork, cheese, and more cheese. Total hit. And I wanted something from the nice plant-based corner of the menu, so rounded out with the barbecue jackfruit taco. Problem was, I had to pack up half of this as leftovers, and there were still so many things I wanted to try, like the grilled street-corn on the cob, more tacos, such as the fish (Alaskan pollock), Korean beef, and Thai fried chicken, and the churro—which I just love.  

Hot Gossip: Where on the KC skyline will a new Ferris wheel be popping up?

Something else I love: clever and thoughtful design. If the look and feel also remind you of Paradise Garden Club in the Crossroads, it’s because they’re the same owners. The same folks also opened The Guild event space right next door, which is one of my favorites in the city. Their laidback, West Coast-style permeates Tiki Taco—food, feel, and even merch. Everyone I encountered at the restaurant was incredibly warm and friendly. As I was heading out, I noticed on the menu that they also offer a full catering spread. This gave me a vision of hosting the perfect summer party, where I mix the margs and leave the bites to someone who knows their way around a kitchen. Keep an eye out. I’ll be sure to let you know how my fiesta goes.

With tacos on my mind, I decided a few days later to comprehensively check out the new Taco Bell Cantina in Westport, whose pre-opening I’d popped into a few weeks prior. I’ve never written about a large chain restaurant opening, nor am I likely to here again. But this isn’t your average Taco Bell. Situated on a prime corner of Westport Road and Broadway, and nestled within the Westley apartment building, this “Cantina” iteration sports something you won’t typically find on the border: cocktails. In addition to the typical TBell fare, you can also snag a mixed drink, wine, roughly 12 different beers on tap (including local Boulevard), and its Twisted Baja Blast Freezes. Just when I thought the fluorescent-blue tropical-lime version of Mountain Dew (aka Baja Blast) couldn’t get any better—well, add your choice of premium tequila, rum, or vodka. Better.

While the drinks are new, the food remains the same. Though the initial rush of nostalgia made me yearn for my free-wheeling college days, I realized that some things are better left in the past. That said, there’s space and occasion for everything, and unlike some oddball purists, I think the Cantina makes a fun, quirky addition to the Westport district. And you know what—sometimes I want a cheesy gordita crunch, ok? Will you find better, more beautiful tacos elsewhere? Yes. But—there’s still something very lively and enjoyable about the Cantina. 

Overheard: “The perfect number for a dinner party: more than the graces; fewer than the muses.”

Particularly at a late weekend hour, you can find people lined up around the block, ready to try their darndest at ordering on computer kiosks, while simultaneously working to stand upright and remember their name. Bright KC-inspired murals bathe the walls, while the weekend DJ is spinning. There are also three semi-private alcove “rooms” that can be reserved by calling ahead. (They even offer “bottle service.”) A heated patio will keep you toasty on a chilly late evening, and nearly two dozen TVs will entertain you, whether you’re there for a game or just a little behind on Days of Our Lives. I had fun. My friends had fun. And I’m sure we’ll be back sooner than we’ll plan or admit. Open early every day at 8 a.m. for breakfast and until 3 p.m. for those late fourth-meal cravings, the possibilities for dropping in are mucho. 

El Jolgorio Mezcal.

Final stop on my Westport week of Cinco de Mayo-inspired kicks: I finally took up my friend Andy Doohan’s offer for a private mezcal tasting at his family’s shop, Mike’s Wine & Spirits. Maybe, like me, you’ve been noticing mezcal popping up on more menus and in your favorite cocktails lately. I can officially say that I’m a total tequila pro, after having visited the city, agave fields, and distilleries there a year ago (if you go, stay at the spectacular Relais & Chateaux-recognized Hotel Solar de las Ánimas). But re: mezcal, I was clueless. 

I’ve glowed about Mike’s on these pages once before. On this visit, though, I learned that they have what is likely the most expansive mezcal offering in the metro (more than 100 different bottles). 

Andy—a proud mezcal aficionado—got me up to speed. Quick mezcal lesson: it’s an agave-based liquor, made via cooking, fermenting, and distilling the heart of the agave plant—the piña. Tequila is a type of mezcal. Much like Champagne is an officially sanctioned type of sparkling wine, Tequila must be made from 100 percent blue agave and only produced in select Mexican states near Tequila. Mezcal still has origin and ingredient restrictions—they’re just less restrictive. 

Overheard: “I’m taking the who-you-know not what-you-know approach.”

How better to learn, though, than taste? I sampled several bottles spanning different brands and regions. One favorite brand was Derrumbes. The bottle design alone, with their native, geometric-print labeling, was love at first sight. I sampled varieties from the Tamaulilpas, Durango, and San Luis Potosí regions. I was surprised by how different the varieties really are. Some are smokier, some have hints of fruit, and others boast a lactic, cheese-like flavor. I can certainly see how people become so enthusiastic about trying, comparing, and collecting mezcal. It’s a lot like wine in that sense.

Another favorite brand—also with gorgeous, colorful, Miro-like labels—was El Jolgorio. The brand represents 16 different families, working in ten different regions of Oaxaca. Every bottle is hand-marked with the specific details of each batch, connecting to the family behind the expression. Whereas the Derrumbes bottles range from roughly $40-90, an El Jolgorio bottle costs around $100-200. 

As Andy explained, mezcal hasn’t yet succumbed to a lot of branding and commercialization like other liquors, where he can often recommend a $40 bottle that’s just as good as something that costs four times that. With mezcal—for now—you get what you pay for. I experienced this to be true. The higher the price, the better they tasted. Salud!

So, KC—where do you want to go? XO

email: dlair@inkansascity.com  | Instagram: @damianlair #OurManINKC

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