As a food lover and writer who spends every weekday on the 800 block of East Douglas, I might have been more excited than anyone to learn in May 2014 that an “urban taco bar” would be opening just a few doors east of The Eagle.
I waited. And waited. And waited some more. The opening date was pushed back multiple times, but in February, it finally opened. I broke one of my own restaurant rules and went on opening day.
Now, five months later, I’m still a customer at District Taqueria, where owners Michael Farha, a longtime caterer, and his cousin Marc Humsi, have pulled off a couple of feats that few aspiring restauranteurs often do: they’ve brought a new concept to downtown Wichita, and they’ve turned a downtown space that has been home to many failed businesses (Jon’s Ale House, Kelly’s Irish Pub) into an inviting, stylish destination.
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Though the restaurant has a few fairly minor – and correctable – issues, it’s a needed and welcome addition downtown.
District’s focus is tacos. These aren’t Taco Bell-style tacos, though. They’re more akin to gourmet street tacos, served on soft corn tortillas (though flour is available, too, and both come from local tortilleria La Tradicion) and topped with various salsas and veggies. Customers can choose from eight fillings, including steak carne asada, shredded and braised beef barbacoa, pork carnitas, mushroom, and red mole pulled chicken. For the more adventuresome, District also has de lengua – or tongue – tacos.
Diners can order the tacos individually for $3 each. Those who order three of the same kind get them cheaper. Three carnitas tacos are $8.50. Three red mole pulled chicken tacos are $7.50.
Farha has designed each taco to come with its own topping. The carnitas have queso cotija, charred green chili and cactus salsa verde. The fish tacos, available fried or grilled, are topped with cabbage slaw and chipotle pineapple crema. Braised beef barbacoa is topped with bright pink pickled red onion, crumbly cotija cheese and smashed avocado. A few taco extras also are available for $1 apiece, including a fried egg, grilled jalapenos or hot sauce.
The menu has a few other items for those not into tacos, including the biggest taquitos you’ve ever seen, an amazingly good salad accented with toasted pepitas, a torta-style sandwich, a chicken sausage tortilla soup and grilled street corn topped with cream, cotija cheese and chili-garlic lime salt.
We sampled most of the tacos, though we weren’t brave enough to try the tongue. All were good, though the ones that came topped with salsa were the best. The ones without, like the braised beef barbacoa, were a little dry. One thing that would improve District is a self-serve salsa bar or at least a couple of varieties of salsa served at the table. The restaurant doesn’t offer complimentary chips and salsa, so customers don’t have the option of saucing up their meals with leftover table salsa.
We solved the dryness problem with the beef barbacoa taco, however, pretty simply – by adding the $1 fried egg, which was served on the bottom of the taco, underneath the toppings. (I couldn’t see it and embarrassed myself by complaining that the kitchen forgot it.) But it was there, all right, and the runny yolk added a decadent richness and needed moisture to the taco, making it one of the best we sampled. The egg, we decided, also would work well on the carne asada, but when we visited, the kitchen was out of that meat choice.
Both chicken tacos were good, too. The achiote is made with chopped grilled chicken topped with avocado crema, queso cotija and pineapple jabanero salsa. The chicken was tender, but the pineapple salsa dominated, giving the taco a tropical taste and fruity freshness. We couldn’t decide whether we liked it or the juicy red mole pulled chicken, swimming in a spicy and complex tomato sauce, better.
We were surprised how much we loved the roasted mushroom tacos, which were among the most colorful and flavorful we sampled at District. The mushrooms were coated with a smoky chiptole salsa, which produced lots of moisture, then topped with a chili garlic aioli and fresh pico, giving the taco a technicolor appearance of orange, red and green. The flavors were vibrant, and I could really taste the garlic.
District’s menu doesn’t offer much for picky children, though they do offer an off-the-menu chicken, steak or cheese quesadilla. We got cheese, and it was $4. Kids and adults will love the barbacoa taquitos. Typically, taquitos (or flautas) are skinny, cigar-shaped tacos fried in a corn tortilla. District stuffs barbacoa, potato and cheese into flour tortillas, and they’re huge. One taquito is as thick as a large egg roll. They’re fried to non-greasy perfection and served with a side of salsa and chili-garlic aioli. The taquitos are filling and approachable for finicky eaters who don’t want, for example, cactus salsa verde.
The kitchen also offers specials on Tuesdays. This week, it was a fried avocado taco with an over easy egg and refried black beans. I’m sorry I missed the Taco Tuesday special two weeks ago: deep fried queso fresco with guacamole, spicy chipotle salsa and micro radish greens.
We also ordered chips and guacamole, which were $4.25. We asked for the restaurant’s queso, too, and they added it for $2. The queso and chips on their own also are $4.25. The thick and chunky guacamole was clearly made that day from fresh avocados. It needed salt, but District’s thin corn chips are extra salty, so when we dipped the chip in the guac, the seasoning was just right. The queso was a surprise. It wasn’t hot and liquid like we were expecting. District’s decadent queso is more of a cream cheese-based dip, served warm. It had a nice, creamy thickness. Both dips were stylishly served in small Mason jars.
We also ordered the grilled street corn, and it was gorgeous – served with the husk still attached, charred black on some of the kernels and drizzled in sour cream. The cream and salt gave the corn an exotic, Mexican flair, but the corn was cooked to the point of emaciation.
One side observation: The District kitchen loves garlic, so no matter what you order, you will likely taste it until tomorrow.
Service is another area where District could use improvement. Though the employees are pleasant, they’re not the most attentive. On our last visit, our waiter was nice but too busy, and it took him more than seven minutes to greet us and offer drinks, another 20 to bring out chips and dips and another 20 after that to bring food. And this was during the lunch hour, when we were trying to get in and out in a hurry.
The dining room needs no improvement. The owners gave it a nice makeover, outfitting it with black chairs and wooden tabletops. The floor is red concrete, which plays nicely off the red exposed brick. The room is flooded with natural sunlight. To passers-by, District looks like a stylish, clean restaurant you’d want to hang out in. Perhaps you, like me, would prefer to hang out with a margarita in hand. From 4 to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, District offers half-price wells, $3.50 margaritas, $2.50 Bud Light drafts and $3 Dos Equis Amber and Modelo drafts.
Ratings reflect the critic’s judgment of the food, service and atmosphere in relation to the price. If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.
☆☆☆ out of four
Where: 917 E. Douglas, 316-832-8155
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays
Type of food: Tacos, Mexican
Cost: Tacos are $3 apiece or three for $7.50 to $8.50; chips and salsa are $3.50; chips and queso or guacamole is $4.25
Alcohol: Full bar