Born in Mexico, Kansas-raised Carlos Mortera is defined by two, sometimes-conflicting cultures, he said — a contrast that led him to question his own identity, but ultimately answer with culinary creations that reflect a diverse Kansas City experience.
“When I was younger, I struggled with feeling like I’m not from either place,” shared Mortera, who moved to the U.S. at age 12. “I’m not Mexican enough to be Mexican, but not American enough to be American.”
“It wasn’t until I had my restaurant when I realized who I was,” continued the founder of Poio, a Mexican barbecue set for its grand reopening Tuesday.
Although Mortera grew up around his father’s several restaurants in Mexico, he initially had no intentions of going into the family business.
“I went to college for marketing with the goal of being a sports agent — I didn’t want to work in restaurants,” he recalled. “But I didn’t care much for school at the time, so I dropped out and started cooking.”
By his mid-to-late-20s, Mortera’s outlook had changed as he started cooking for high-end restaurants.
“I learned to love how to cook,” he shared. “I wanted to be like a sponge and absorb as many techniques as I could. At the time, I just wanted to be a chef — I didn’t want to have a restaurant.”
Again, Mortera’s plans took a turn. While working at The Bite in the River Market, Mortera was offered to partner with the restaurant. After a couple years, he bought his partners out in 2016 to create a restaurant that was uniquely his own, he shared.
“[The Bite] had Mexican flavors, but I grew up in America loving sandwiches and fast casual restaurants; so we combined the two,” Mortera said.
Mortera’s second venture, Poio, opened in 2018 in Kansas City’s Westside neighborhood. His father, also named Carlos, joined as his partner in Poio. With their lease ending in November 2020 and the restaurant undergoing rapid expansion, Mortera decided it would be best to close Poio’s Westside location and bring it back to his home state of Kansas.
Amid Poio’s reopening and welcoming a baby daughter this past year, Mortera closed The Bite this spring to focus on family and health, he said.
Click here to learn more about Poio and its menu.
Reopening in KCK
Poio’s new location is set for a grand opening Tuesday in Kansas City, Kansas. Not only did Mortera express excitement about his upgraded space, but he’s eager to return to a place that feels like home, shared Mortera, who grew up in both Wyandotte and Johnson counties on the Kansas side of the state line.
“Growing up in Wyandotte County always felt like home because there’s a big Mexican community here,” he said. “If I ever felt like I needed to have a little piece of Mexico, I would come here. Plus, there’s already great food over here — I feel like it’s one of the best destinations for food — and I just want to be a part of that.”
Customers can anticipate indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a drive thru. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed to Mortera how important convenience is for his customers, he shared, so a drive thru was a crucial component. (The new restaurant is in a former Subway, already equipped with access for hungry drivers.)
“We wanted to provide chef-driven food at a drive thru that is affordable,” Mortera noted. “One of my big takeaways from working in fine dining is that: fine dining is not available to everyone — but everyone should be eating that well. … We pick up the best ingredients and give them to people in an affordable way.”
Before Poio’s grand opening, the community can get a taste of its food through the Jewish Vocational Services’ (JVS) 9th annual Global Table fundraiser on Monday.
Shifting from its regular fundraiser because of the COVID-19 pandemic, JVS partnered with four immigrant and/or refugee-owned restaurants for “Global Table To Go.” Each Monday in May, a different restaurant is offering carry-out cuisine in partnership with JVS. Tickets are available online.
Click here for ticketing more information on JVS’ Global Table To Go Fundraiser.
“I want [Poio] to be a part of community events and partnerships in the future,” Mortera said. “We already have plans with some friends to host benefit concerts because we have a giant parking lot that’d be great for a concert or different activities.”
Seasoned with cultures
Tying into Mortera’s blended identity, the name “Poio” is a play on words.
“The Spanish word for ‘chicken’ is pollo, spelled p-o-l-l-o,” he explained, noting that the double “L” in Spanish often mimics the “Y” sound in English. “But English speakers unfamiliar with the Spanish language will pronounce the word as pol-lo.”
In order to have everyone pronounce the restaurant’s name the same way, Mortera landed on “Poio” — which is also a reflection of growing up around both English and Spanish, he added.
Mexican food and Kansas City barbecue aren’t Mortera’s only influences; he also pulls inspiration from his friends and past experiences, he shared.
“At one point I worked at a Korean restaurant, so we did a lot of Korean-inspired food at The Bite,” Mortera said. “One of my best friends is Filipino, and I really learned to love their food. We have kimchi fried rice; we sell ribs in a Filipino adobo way. … We have some of those traditional [Kansas City] barbecue sides, but we do it our way.”
Understanding one’s identity is a struggle that many immigrants and individuals of mixed ethnicities experience, he acknowledged, but slowly one’s identity reveals itself.
“Finding out who you are is pretty cool,” Mortera said. “It builds my confidence, especially as a chef feeling confident in my food.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that seeks to build inclusive prosperity through a prepared workforce and entrepreneur-focused economic development. The Foundation works to change conditions, address root causes, and break down systemic barriers so that all people – regardless of race, gender, or geography – have the opportunity to achieve economic stability, mobility, and prosperity.