Acapulco Mexican Restaurant (circa 1958-2007)
310 Admiral Boulevard KC MO
1041 Burlington in North Kansas City, MO
Courtesy of Flikr.com
The story of a beloved Kansas City Mexican restaurant, Acapulco, starts with a young Rafael Jiménez who sought a pathway to the United States and took it when offered employment at a short-lived location of Las Palmas Mexican Restaurant at 310 Admiral Boulevard.
Jiménez, his wife, Socorro, and their young children came to Kansas City from Guadalajara. The son and grandson of dairy farmers, Jiménez charted a different course for himself. He studied accounting and kept the books for a construction company while working for a bank and managing a motel. This experience in Guadalajara led Ray Garcia who operated the Las Palmas on Admiral Boulevard to hire him, initially to help with a new motel concept, but ultimately to work at his restaurant.
Jiménez’s work ethic and training were critical to his success, but so too was his determination to succeed in a new country. He did everything--from dishwasher to waiter to chef to bookkeeper--and when necessary “slept on a cot in the corner,” Jiménez wrote in the preface to his popular cookbook, Rafael’s Recipes. Earning $21.60 a week plus his tips was a humble beginning, but when Ray Garcia closed his restaurant, Jiménez took the proverbial leap of faith and bought the business when the building’s owner lent him fifty dollars to do so. The first known advertisement for Jiménez’s Acapulco appeared in a January 1, 1962 New Year’s greeting in the Kansas City Star, although likely Acapulco was up and running well before that date.
Acapulco began as a two-dining-room operation, one orange, and one aquamarine, “accented with corniced, three dimensional street scenes and wrought iron hanging lamps,” the Clarendons wrote in their 1982 Guide to Kansas City Restaurants. Candlelight in the evening gave the interiors a cozy, elegant feel while the outside neon sign (now preserved in a museum) lit up the sky, beckoning customers to enter. Inside, diners sat down to a menu that had received a thorough “going over” by Jiménez’s mother, Josefina. As Jiménez tells the story, Josefina came for a visit, tasted her son’s food, and pronounced, “¡Es Terrible!” She promptly extended her visa another ninety days and “completely changed the menu,” Jiménez wrote, teaching both the cooks and her son her recipes. Raphael’s Recipes, published in 2004, is indeed dedicated to Josefina for making Acapulco the success it became.
Part of Acapulco’s appeal was the made-from-scratch freshness of the food. The Clarendons spoke for many when they pronounced: “Few restaurants that are billed as Mexican are without an American adulteration. We think this one is as pure as we have found.” No dish, they continue, needs any addition, and the margaritas are perfect, “made from scratch, and are quite dry.” Star restaurant critic followed up with his review two years later, commending the fact that the food is “set apart by total integrity. Tamales are filled with cooked pork and steamed in corn husks. Chicken enchiladas are stuffed with freshly shredded meat.”The menu, from Menu Guide of Kansas City, 1976
Take something that seems as straightforward as frijoles refritos, Spanish for well-fried beans (re-fried, or more accurately well-fried). Patrons adored Acapulco's versions: fried, and re-fried. The fried version involved cooked pinto beans finished in a small amount of lard and mashed with the pot liquor from boiled pintos. Re-fried were similar, but they called for twice as much lard and no broth. In 1976, a side of fried beans sold for fifty cents, while re-fried were 15 cents extra.
In the 1970s, the restaurant also stood out for its carnitas, where thick chunks of tender pork were served alongside fried beans, corn tortillas, and a Mexican beer served in a frosty pewter mug, wrote journalist Sara Baker for the Kansas City Star Magazine. The food was expertly cooked, but Jiménez refused to over-spice his food. He instead put his salsa at each table in red round ketchup dispensers that resembled a tomato for hot salsa, and yellow squirt bottles for mild salsa. Customers then dressed their meals to their taste.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kansas City, along with the Midwest, experienced an invasion of Mexican-themed chains and franchises, ushering in all manner of American-Mexican foods that became immediately popular. Among them was the Acapulco y Los Arcos Restaurant whose branch in Overland Park, Kansas, often confused many as to which was the homegrown Acapulco and which was the chain. While Acapulco y Los Arcos lasted only a short time, family-owned Mexican restaurants responded in part by adding new dishes to their menus. Nachos and complementary baskets of tortilla chips were added to the Jiménez's Acapulco menu, and to near universal acclaim, Socorro Jiménez’s flan was also added. Its simplicity--whole milk, sweetened condensed milk, eggs, sugar, and vanilla--demanded both expert cooking and perfect raw ingredients. When the restaurant sold out of the dessert as it did most days, patrons who were unlucky to receive an order were often eager to return soon to try again, and the business thrived.
Until the late 1980s, that is. Admiral became cut off from the City Market and constant foot traffic by the maze of Interstate highways that radically changed downtown. Compounding problems was Jiménez’s inability to buy the property on which his restaurant sat in order to expand and upgrade. Hence, in 1990, he moved just across the Missouri River to North Kansas City, purchasing a long-abandoned Sambo’s Restaurant at 1041 Burlington, and taking his now-iconic neon sign with him. The expansion allowed for a cocktail lounge and private dining room, as well as a larger main dining room graced by a concrete three-tiered fountain whose coins went to The Dream Factory charity.
Acapulco was very much a family affair. Socorro passed away in 2004, and Jiménez in August, 2008. It is fair to say that the restaurant had been his and Socorro's life.
See Acapulco Mexican New Years Greeting, Kansas City Star, 1 Jan., 1962: 12
Interview with Donald Quinn II, 8 Jan., 2021
This post is the sole property of Andrea Broomfield who must be acknowledged for any information borrowed.