Wichita is in the center of the United States, and its residents eat like it.
On any given day, Wichita diners can slurp fragrant Vietnamese pho, laden with grilled beef, bean sprouts, jalapenos and fresh basil.
They can drive down the street for a plate of creamy, garlicky hummus – or drive a mile or two farther for an order of fluffy, meat-stuffed Salvadoran pupusas.
Wichitans can easily translate carne asada and banh mi. They know what baba ghanoush is made of. They know the difference between bibimbap and bulgogi, and they know where to get both.
Wichita is not a huge city, but it does have a healthy and vibrant melting pot of ethnic restaurants that grows every year – and that verses its residents on world cuisine.
According to the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, out of about 800 restaurants in the Wichita area, 289 are ethnic restaurants, many opened by immigrants who came to Wichita for education, a new start or to join already-established relatives.
Just in the past year, Wichita has gained a long list of new ethnic restaurants, from the new El Tenampa, a taqueria that opened at 3302 W. Central in November, to Restaurante Antojitos Salvadoreno , a Salvadoran restaurant that opened at 2117 E. Central a couple of months ago.
Wichita also has its share of Mediterranean places, bolstered by its Lebanese community, and it’s home to dozens and dozens of Vietnamese and Mexican restaurants, too. Japanese, Korean, Thai, Chinese, Malaysian and Indian eateries also can be found here.
“When I think about restaurant options in Wichita, I think about the awesome mix of options and choices we have available for a city of our size,” said Adam Mills, the president and CEO of the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association. “Wichita is a great food city. If you crave it, you can most likely find it here.”
Mario Quiroz and his wife, Mara Garza, who own Molino’s Mexican Cuisine at 1064 N. Waco, are among the immigrants who came to Wichita and found themselves in the restaurant business.
Quiroz left Monterrey, Mexico, 13 years ago bound for the MBA program at Wichita State University. He already had relatives living here.
To make ends meet, he took a job as a server at La Mesa, a restaurant that then operated on West 21st Street. Before long, he was a manager, then a co-owner.
He decided to make a go of it himself and opened Frida’s Mexican Grill at 1580 W. 21st St. in 2008. The restaurant and its piratas, which are giant grilled flour tacos, were popular with local foodies, but the location was wrong, Quiroz said. Road construction and other hurdles killed the business – and Quiroz sucked La Mesa dry trying to keep Frida’s from going under.
He lost La Mesa in 2009 and Frida’s a year later. He was broke and discouraged.
But in early 2013, he got another chance.
He’d been working as a food distributor for U.S. Foods, and one of his clients had opened and then quickly closed a Mexican restaurant next door to Juarez Bakery on Waco. The spot was perfect.
“I said, ‘This is our chance to redeem ourselves,’” he said. “It’s like a vendetta for our destiny.”
Wichita gave Quiroz a chance to start over, he said. Molino’s so far is a success and is well-supported by adventuresome eaters in nearby Riverside who love his cochinita pibil, Yucatan-style slow-roasted pork. The restaurant is allowing Quiroz and Garza to have time to raise their two young sons, and they’re cultivating a business they can pass on to their adult daughter, who also works with them.
They’re even talking about expanding to a second spot.
“People always say, ‘We are glad you’re back,’” Quiroz said. “The support has been great with the community. That’s why we said yes.”