Jarocho’s Carlos Falcon shows why the chef’s choice can be the right choice

The broiled octopus at Jarocho.

The broiled octopus at Jarocho.

Eating omakase-style at Jarocho Pescados y Mariscos (719 Kansas Avenue, Kansas City, Kasnas) is an experience that most diners would reserve for a favorite sushi destination or fine dining restaurants headed by A-list chefs. The Japanese phrase loosely means “I’ll leave it to you” and originates from the word makaseru, meaning “to entrust.”

“When you eat omakase, it’s chef’s choice,” says Carlos Falcon, owner of Jarocho. “You sit and the chef will feed you.”

Of course, guests can certainly order off the menu and savor a wide range of dishes such as golden trout, octopus sauteed in its ink, fish tacos and traditional carnes asada. What diners won’t find is typical Tex-Mex fare common to Mexican restaurants throughout Kansas City.

Falcon and his Japanese wife Sayaka, six months pregnant, have nurtured this buzzing seafood destination from scratch after opening a half-year ago. Previously, the KCK location housed a Taquerio Mexico restaurant.

Falcon trained in classic French techniques and now applies them to “rough Mexican cuisine” with striking results. He draws on hands-on experience as the former chef and owner of Lenexa-based Stonewall Inn, now Grinder’s at Stonewall. He was also the former executive chef at Blonde, a nightclub and restaurant that operated on the Country Club Plaza.

“I found myself cooking in the nightclub industry,” says Falcon. “There were no weekends, no personal life, after 12 years of cooking.”

Chef and owner Carlos Falcon in Jarocho's dining room.

Chef and owner Carlos Falcon in Jarocho’s dining room.

He stepped away from the industry for a brief spell but grew restless for the next opportunity. Sayaka proposed that he go back to cooking, a trade that made him innately happy under the right circumstances.

“I told her that I’ll work long hours and we won’t see each other,” says Falcon, “ but we found a way by doing this. We work together.”

Falcon seized the chance to take over the Mexican restaurant and put his own spin on seafood, finding inspiration in the beach culture of his native Veracruz.

“I make simple, fresh, colorful, vibrant food,” he says. “I don’t cut corners. My wife and I agreed that we would make enough money to pay the bills, but I would stay true to what I want to do.”

Humbly, Falcon shuns the spotlight despite recent buzz about Jarocho. Yet, he cooks with passion evident in each dish he brings out, omakase-style. Entrusting Falcon to feed you is an adventurous feat for those that have an equal passion for dining.

He begins with bluepoint oysters on the half-shell, topped with octopus, shrimp, blue crab, pico de gallo, and a house ketchup made with lobster broth and cloves. The oyster trio is served on a bed of sea salt on a platter. It’s a petite fruit de mer – fruits of the sea.

The oysters have helped Jarocho generate buzz.

The oysters have helped Jarocho generate buzz.

Jarocho made its early reputation via social media and by word-of-mouth because of its $1-dollar oyster special on Tuesdays. The promotion has proven successful enough to expand to Thursdays.

“We sell 500 to 600 oysters on these days and between 1,500 to 2000 each week on average,” says Falcon.

He shows the wear and tear on his hands from shucking huge volumes. His hands cramp at the end of busy days.

Falcon has been savvy about cultivating sources for fresh seafood shipped by air from New York, San Diego, Virginia and coastal Texas and Louisiana. Bluepoint, delicate Kumamoto and a regional variety of oysters, sourced from a native American tribe in Virginia, regularly appear as specials. He gets blood clams, live scallops, black sea bass, langoustines and other delicacies difficult to obtain. Many seafood vendors reserve their best product for top-dollar chefs and restaurants located near the coasts. Falcon’s hard-won network keeps him supplied with fresh, diverse seafood not commonly found in Mexican restaurants anywhere in the Midwest.

Falcon brings out broiled clams loaded with spicy Monterey cheese sauce. Cheese and fish is a common culinary no-no. Falcon defies tradition. His rebelliousness pays off with rich, smoky flavor cut by subtle brine.

“The light, creamy cheese sauce is finished with mole,” says Falcon, “I use the cheese sauce on stuffed trout and other dishes.”

Falcon's clam loaded with cheese.

Falcon doesn’t shy away from unorthodox ingredients.

His version of his mother’s mole recipe is less time-consuming to prepare but still full-flavored. Growing up, he sold his mother’s prepared foods on the streets in Veracruz to help pay bills. His respect for traditional roots is tempered with modern techniques.

Falcon brings a platter heaped with shrimp cucaracha. The latter term is a colloquial reference to shrimp in Veracruz, where they are prepared whole, shell-on. Falcon quickly fries the shrimp, sautés them in olive oil and a piquant sauce and finishes the dish with fresh minced garlic. Pluck the head and tail and commence gobbling for full effect. More fussy eaters with texture issues can take the time to completely de-shell the shrimp.

A searing dish of broiled octopus is dressed with olive oil, jalapeno and red and white onion. The charred flavor marries well with a balance of spice, salt and acid. Falcon pops out of the kitchen to ask if the special ingredient can be identified. Another taste prompts a search through the mental pantry. Nam pla? Thai fish sauce?

Falcon nods and smiles. Use of the fish sauce is untraditional, unorthodox as the chef himself, but it works by adding subtle umami and salt to the dish.

“My wife and I have many friends from Thailand, Vietnam and other countries,” says Falcon. Those personal connections influence his idiosyncratic cooking style. “I like to incorporate Asian flavors in my dishes.”

Falcon’s final dish is a whole, fried black sea bass served with a mound of rice and shredded lettuce. A separate dish of steaming chipotle sauce – inspired by Thai sauces introduced by friends – is meant to be pour over the fish, but dipping pieces into the sauce also works. The whole fish prompts memories of Thailand, where freshwater catches and seafood are similarly prepared with head, tail and bones intact. Crisp skin yields tender, flaky meat underneath. It’s slightly more work but the payoff is worthwhile.

“People are scared about the head and fins,” says Falcon. “I’m just going back to our roots. It’s how people used to eat fish.”

And it’s how many people prepare and eat fish around the world.

Falcon’s cooking is a balance of rustic and refined, where he thrust seafood and shellfish in the spotlight. He exhibits deep respect for ingredients and a reverence for the relationship between chef and diner. Whether dining a la carte or omakase, trust is at the center of the exchange.

As a restaurant, Jarocho, slang for someone from Veracruz, reflects the hospitality and sincerity of its owner. In a Yelp- and foodie-obsessed age of glowing praise, self-entitlement and damning critique, leaving the experience up to the chef is its own reward.

petedulin

Pete Dulin is a Kansas City-based writer and author of Last Bite: 100 Simple Recipes from Kansas City's Best Chefs and Cooks. http://lastbitecookbook.com/

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