If you've lived in the Northland for long, then you've likely heard of or experienced Chef Tito. This larger than life culinary artist has been a fixture in the Northland for years--his Latin Bistro lit up a small spot on North Oak Trafficway for nearly eight years before shutting its doors. After a brief break, Chef Tito came roaring back with a food truck, a commercial contract with Worlds of Fun, and now, a forever home at the corner of 10th and Burlington called American Fusion Cafe.
Tito is the embodiment of a chef--he breathes his food, and not just what's on the comal in front of him. He loves the history of the cuisine, especially in his native country of Mexico. Originating in the Yucatan peninsula, his most authentic ingredients come from the sea but he embraces the thousands of flavors that Mexico has brought to the culinary world.
Tito was not always destined to be a chef. In fact, his father intended for him to take on a loftier career--literally. As the son of an airline pilot, he was expected to follow on his father's wingtips and was sent off to learn to fly. He rebelled. He wanted to cook.
"My father told me, here is your airplane ticket, here is your paperwork for school. You're going to be an airplane pilot in Houston. And I told him, no. I want to be a chef. He didn't talk to me for a year. But my mother and grandpa were from Spain and he came as an immigrant from Spain during the civil war. And he made a bakery in the south of Mexico," he says.
Tito made good on his promise, opening his first restaurant in Mexico at the age of 17. By 31, he was working in a French restaurant, learning classical technique. He worked for Royal Caribbean for a time, which took him all over the world. In 2000, he started over in the U.S. working for a fellow Mexican chef and Kansas City transplant and former brother in law, Carlos Falcon. He didn't know what to expect when he landed at MCI, but Kansas City was more cosmopolitan than he expected.
"I think I expected Dodge City, Kansas. But what I saw on my way from the airport to Lenexa was beautiful. And I loved it," he says. Twenty years later, he's put down roots in the Northland.
Chef Tito was ahead of the curve with Latin Bistro, serving authentic Mexican fare that went beyond the typical Tex-Mex one expected in the suburbs. Instead, he explored the cuisine of his childhood--seafood, cochinita pibil, huitlacoche, squash blossom quesadillas, and more. He also taught cooking classes in the tiny open kitchen.
With American Fusion, he's left the classes behind and is focused on presenting the fusion that is Mexican cuisine. His current menu is focused on proteins from a variety of countries--mostly Latin American, but also diving into shawarma, which bears a striking resemblance to his more familiar al pastor.
In addition to offering street tacos, diners can order by type of meat, whether that's tongue (lengua) or cured pork (poc chuc), grilled fish with garlic (pescado aijilo), or steak (arrachera). What you won't find is huge plates of sloppy burritos or chimichangas. His dedication to the history and authenticity of his food is what has elevated his cuisine and built a loyal following.
It's also what landed him the 2019 Best Chef trophy from the American Culinary Federation for the midwest. He's the first Mexican chef to snag the honor after being nominated for the last five years. He's also halfway through his five year term as Vice President of the midwest chapter.
As with most restaurants, times have been tough of late. Lunch crowds have diminished as people work from home but dinner crowds are slowly picking up. American Fusion also offers salsa classes on Saturday evenings, complete with classes out on their spacious patio. Tito says that on a recent Saturday evening, almost 200 people came and went, dancing with their own partners, or taking care to sanitize and mask up when dancing with someone new. The people are hungry for more than just tacos.
To accommodate the demand for safety and outdoor space, Chef Tito recently ordered a custom tent that will filter the air and cover the entire outdoor space so that loyal dancers and diners can have a place to gather safely. He's also created easy to-go items such as the Kilo family meals. Choose your protein (or pick two) and take home two lbs of meat, as well as guacamole, tortillas, rice, beans, and salsa for $44.50.
The love and passion that Chef Tito has for his food, whether native or not, is obvious in every interaction. Pre-pandemic, he had intended to start a YouTube show where he would travel around the world, showcasing the history and evolution of different cuisines. Instead, he's taking diners in North Kansas City on a culinary vacation with every bite of his food and finding ways to bring joy to the community.
American Fusion is located at 1621 Swift in North Kansas City. Find their menu online at AmericanFusion.cafe. Hours are Tuesday through Wednesday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays 10:30 to 1:30 a.m., Saturdays 4 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. with Salsa starting at 9 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.