Craig and Colleen Lord (Photos by Tom Parker)
Not in California, er, Kansas Anymore, Toto
I confess to being something of a Mexican food aficionado. Or snob, if you prefer. My upbringing in New Mexico taught me the finer aspects of Mexican cuisine, and 26 years in Denver honed my instincts and sharpened my palate. Moving to Kansas improved my life in every way but one: quality Mexican fare was forever a thing of the past. Or so I thought.
Since moving here eight years ago, I’ve developed a set of warning signals to watch out for when succumbing to the temptation of new Mexican restaurants or cafes. For one, having an Anglo running the place is a bad sign; county-western music on the jukebox is a definite no-no; but worst of all, the most egregious taboo possible, is the sight of sanchos on the menu. I don’t know what a sancho is. All I can tell you is that I ate one once and won’t again and that it was at a place run by white guys listening to Garth Brooks.
I was ready to add another warning not long ago when my wife and I spent the day in Wamego. We’d toured the Columbia Theater and several small shops along the main drag, eaten a wonderful lunch at the Friendship House, and were walking off our meal when we came across a colorful storefront with a sign announcing “Toto’s Tacoz.” Like other businesses in Wamego it had opted for the Oz theme, and as I was opening my mouth to pontificate how one should never, ever eat Mexican food at a place that uses fictional characters for menu items, the aroma snaked up my nostrils, ignited my taste receptors and exploded in my brain.
I couldn’t resist, not even when I discovered the owner was a white man. As I bit into a taco, the world disappeared and I was transported elsewhere. “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” I whispered in ecstasy. Ah, but we were.
Toto’s Tacoz is the brainchild of Craig and Colleen Lord, and it’s worth noting that they’re not native to the state. They hail from Paso Robles, Calif., having relocated to Wamego almost three years ago to be closer to Colleen’s mother in Manhattan. Like others who escaped the rat race to seek new lives in rural environs, the Lords left behind grown children and family members and established careers with little more than a dream and an idea. And yet they were lucky enough to continue those careers once they arrived in Kansas—for a while, at least.
Craig nailed a job in the food service industry working for Harker’s Distributing, headquartered in Le Mars, Iowa, an extension of what he did in California. Colleen, with a degree in music theory from K-State, continued her self-employed career as a piano-voice teacher.
And so it might have gone on until they saw a thin sliver of a building standing in the shadow of the Wizard of Oz Museum. It was an antique store at the time, but the location and size reminded Craig of a project he’d worked on back on the West Coast. “I was sitting on our patio and drew out a layout of a small taco stand,” Craig said. “I filed it away in my ‘goals’ folder, which we add to each year. Then one day we came to town and saw the building. If ever there was a place for a taqueria, that was it.” Several months later they noticed a going-out-of-business sign in front. They tracked down the owners and wrote them a check on the spot. “It was that fast,” he said.
Other than Colleen’s piano-voice lessons, they’d never owned their own business. “It was a little more to get it going,” he said. “We’re getting to the place in life where we want to do a little more with less labor.” There was never any doubt that they would have an Oz element. “It’s a strong element here,” Craig said. “ If you’ve got a theme going, get on the bandwagon. We want to support that.”
The Lords contacted the Baum family to see if there were any proprietary restrictions on using Oz characterizations. Unless they turned into a national chain, there were none. With those blessings, Colleen created the graphics for the menu and the decor, including painting Dorothy and Toto on the ceiling above the front counter. The Lords did most of the work themselves to save money. “To survive in business you have to let it pay its way,” Craig said. “It has to grow at its own speed.”
The speed of its growth has surprised the Lords. “We didn’t expect this place to support us,” he said. “We thought I’d have another job, and she would be in the front and me in the kitchen and maybe one helper.” Once Toto’s Tacoz took off, Craig quit his job at Harker’s to devote his full attention to growing his taqueria. The restaurant now employs six and has added a small patio on the side and another in back. Orange and red painted spools act as tables, and in the summer umbrellas provide shade. They landscape with flowers and an edible garden, growing their own cilantro, tomatoes and jalapeños.
Craig credits the success on the quality of the food. He uses only the freshest ingredients and USDA grade chuck, hand-trimmed and roasted until it falls apart. He then adds spices—”the Mexican flair,” in his words—and shreds the meat in its own juices. It’s an expensive cut of beef and a lot more effort than using ground beef but he says the difference is worth it.
Salsas are made fresh twice daily, sometimes more depending on demand. Ingredients are checked with Nutrician.com to determine how healthy they are. “I don’t like nerves, gristle or fat in my meat,” he said. “Our food is healthy for you.” Even the beans are vegetarian. The style of Mexican is West Coast, he said, or like that of Puerto Vallarta. Nothing is canned: even the tomatillos used for the sauces are fresh and hand-peeled. He also credits an indefinable element to the process that he said is the recipe for success: “When there’s love in the kitchen, the food’s always good.”
I just love it when he talks like that.
“We’re trying to grow a little more everyday,” he said. “We picked a good little town. We’re still here.”
Toto’s Tacoz is located at 517 Lincoln St. in downtown Wamego. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, call 785-456-8090.
I now have to rethink my list of warnings and cautionary notes. As far as I’m concerned, Toto’s Tacoz remains the preeminent Mexican food restaurant in the state of Kansas. Thank God and the Lords there were no sanchos on the menu.